Checkmating Alzheimer’s Disease

by ChessBase
5/20/2013 – Every 68 seconds someone in the US develops Alzheimer’s disease. 14.5 million caregivers provided more than 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care, and the total cost of Alzheimer’s is projected to balloon from $203 billion in 2013 to $1.2 trillion by 2050. Medical science is still wrestling with cause and cure, but, as Michael Ciamarra explains, there is one treatment that seems to work: chess.

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Checkmating Alzheimer’s Disease

Could Mind Sports help older adults improve cognitive performance and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s

By Michael Ciamarra

You’ve read the headline of this article. Interesting you think. You nod and move on. What if you notice that you forgot what you just had read a moment ago?

It’s those little things that begin to make you concerned – misplaced keys, forgetting to shut the refrigerator door, driving home forgetting which way you turn to get there. What happens when you cannot remember the person sitting across from you who happens to also be your spouse?

Many know this reality all too well – especially if you are a caregiver or have seen the devastation of Alzheimer’s in your immediate family. The never ending data is alarming and staggering.

Comparison of a normal aged brain and one of a person with Alzheimer's [Wiki]

Every 68 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s disease. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that in 2013, 450,000 Americans will die with Alzheimer’s disease. Estimates are that 7 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s by 2025 – a 40 percent increase.

By 2050, cost of care for Alzheimer’s is projected to balloon from $203 billion in 2013 to $1.2 trillion, 70 percent of which will be covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Nearly 14.5 million caregivers provided more than 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care. Those numbers will rise over the next decade as well.

Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s or dementia, so as our population continues to age the prevalence of the disease will continue to grow. Closer to home, almost 53,000 Alabama citizens are living with Alzheimer’s. In Alabama, by 2025 there will be a 31 percent increase in the disease.

The latest data underscore the need for an urgent global response, including a strong investment in research, to stop the emerging Alzheimer’s crisis. Fortunately, policy makers are recognizing this urgency about investment, research and education. The White House recently unveiled a $100 million dollar BRAIN Initiative and that will take a very important step toward the most dramatic breakthroughs in human health. Brain research is vital for Autism, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, mental health, and a host of other concerns.

Chess vs Alzheimer

What can be done to stop the disease or slow it down in the meantime? There exists an intriguing activity that could, indeed, slow or stop the disease. A recent National Institute of Health – National Institute on Aging publication, Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease: What Do We Know? is fascinating. The front cover of the document featured two seniors playing chess! The document affirms that, “Staying cognitively active … through mentally stimulating activities … such as playing games are linked to keeping the mind sharp.”

Further, it suggests that the reasons why an active brain prevents Alzheimer’s may be, “Such activities may protect the brain by establishing ‘cognitive reserve,’ the brain’s ability to operate effectively even when it is damaged or some brain function is disrupted.” Harvard Medical School last month noted, “...exposing the brain to novel activities in particular provided greater protection against Alzheimer’s disease than just aerobic exercise.”

"Chess-Players" by Honoré Daumier, 1867 [source: Wikipaintings]

Does playing chess or any mind sport prevent Alzheimer’s? Could this nearly 1800 year-old game hold a key to keeping your thinking healthy and engaged? Could chess or other mind sports be one of the “preventions” to ward off the 6th largest killer disease in the US?

Chess is in fact a particularly good brain builder! It is a fairly easy game to learn. It takes a little practice but you can play it very quickly and the possibilities of play are endless. Playing games like chess can stimulate our minds, increase our social interactions with others and possibly reduce stress, but when it comes to reducing risk of Alzheimer’s, the type, variety and frequency of the games we play is key.

I am going to suggest, based on my long experience and observations, that any game that is challenging and stimulating will be beneficial to an older adult. Mind sports lends itself to a variety of complexities from various patterns to calculations that stimulate players' brains. Research says that people who don't exercise their gray matter stand a chance of losing brain power when they age.

A “mind sport” doesn’t leave the game outcome to dice or chance or bluff. Although those games are fun and recreational – they do not confer to an individual the same lasting values as a mind sport.

Chess seems like a treatment that works. In fact, people over the age of 75 that partake in leisure activities that stimulate the brain were less likely to develop signs of dementia. Research shows that chess affects specific areas of the brain and the stimulation will shift with the problems that a chess player faces during the game.

We all know that games can be fun and challenging, but if we are interested in actually maintaining brain fitness, then mind sports stimulate all six cognitive areas of the brain at the same time and are the most beneficial.

Those six cognitive areas:

  • Short-term memory, used when we remember information shortly after it’s been understood.
  • Long-term memory, used when we recall something from the vast store of information that’s in our brain.
  • Language, the use and form of words.
  • Calculation has two definitions. First, calculation is the use of numbers. The other form of calculation involves assessing the risks, possibilities or effects of a course of action. Playing chess is another way to exercise calculation skills.
  • Visual-spatial, referring to our visual perception of objects.
  • Critical thinking, our ability to analyze and evaluate situations.

The emergence of mind sports as a tool to reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s is based on using and exercising all six cognitive areas of the brain and continuing the program over a period of time. Chess touches every one of those areas.

It can’t hurt to learn chess, checkers (there are dozens of different ways to play this very beautiful game), Bridge or another mind sport. Those games are easy to learn and are endlessly fascinating. The day may not be far off when doctors recommend a game of chess along with the physical exercise and a healthy diet for older adults! The recreational value will make for a memorable experience and a better life in the future – one you will want to remember.

Michael Ciamarra is a World Chess Federation (FIDE) certified Chess Instructor and a US Chess Federation certified Advanced Chess Coach. He is a member of the American Checker Federation. He coaches mind sports (chess, checkers, etc) to older veterans, and blind and low-vision veterans at the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center. He speaks to senior groups about the value of Mind Sports as a way to improve cognitive performance and teaches chess and Mind Sports to older adults. He can reached through alabamachess at

You can also visit Michael's Facebook page, which has the above historical 3D chess photograph in its header. It can be views by gazing into the background and bringing the two images together; or if you are not able to use that technique you can use cross-eyed viewing using this image (in which we have reversed the plates).

Veterans from Tuscaloosa’s VA Medical Center are playing mind games. Actually, they are playing a game that will hopefully strengthen their minds. Chess. There has been some research to indicate that games like chess, which require a lot of brain power, can improve a person’s memory. It could also help to slow Alzheimer’s symptoms. Experts describe these “mind sports” has being like a Stairmaster for your brain. The idea is that when you stay cognitively active, your mind stays in shape.

Experts will be coming to the VA once a week to coach the veterans on how to play chess. For many, it’s their first trying the game. Instructors say they should be ready to play a full game on their own in four weeks. At that point, there has been some discussion about arranging for tournament play with the Birmingham-area VA Medical Center.


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