Study shows chess is a powerful tool against dementia (video)

by Albert Silver
7/26/2023 – In a study just released, chess was shown to be one of the most useful strategies in helping to prevent dementia. The study followed over 10 thousand senior Australians and their habits, and spanned 10 years. The conclusion was that chess permitted 'higher efficiency in using brain networks'. Read on and watch the video!

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Back in 2016, I had the pleasure of covering the World Championship match in New York between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, As befits a match of this caliber, each round started with a personality or celebrity making the first move to start the game. In round eight, that personality was none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist and popularizer of science.

Afterwards, he sat down with several journalists including myself and was kind enough to answer a few questions. Being a chess journalist, I asked him what he thought of the move being made by some schools to include chess as part of the curriculum and not simply an extracurricular activity such as the chess club, or football team or what-have-you. He pondered this for a second and replied:

“I checked with chess people, grandmasters as a community. There is no one other thing that they all do great. They’ll do something else great, but there is no one other repeating thing among them, and I’m intrigued by that. This made me wonder whether chess as a thing does not rub off in any other way other than the discipline you need to have reached that goal in the first place. And success in anything in this world requires discipline. So this is how I’ve come to think about that problem.”

Unfortunately, there was no chance to follow-up because he was immediately called to do a long-distance interview on his phone, but I remember distinctly disagreeing with him on the limited merits of chess. According to him, the only merit chess really has is the discipline it requires of a player to become a master or grandmaster, and that level of discipline is the key to success in just about any field, but in and of itself chess is only really useful at becoming better at playing chess.

Now, I understood the crux of his thought, since the arguments being passed around to promote chess in schools is that it would translate to better math scores and science, and as much as I want to get behind this, I don’t really buy it.

A number of studies have come out lauding the benefits chess has on subjects such as math

I mean, sure, you calculate in math, and you calculate in chess, but they are completely different, and calculating several moves ahead in chess has nothing to do with calculating in algebra or calculus. 

That doesn’t mean I think chess has no intellectual value outside itself, I just don’t think that’s where its intrinsic value lies. I have always thought of chess as one of the best and most thorough mental workouts you can do, and it doesn’t matter if you are weak or strong at it. It will work your memory, your concentration, visualization, problem-solving, imagination, logic, and more.

Chess is like weight training for the brain

So just as lifting weights in the gym won’t improve a tennis player’s technique on the court, it does provide ancillary benefits to their overall game, by strengthening their body and giving them the ability to deliver their best.

Still, as much as I stood by this belief, and even voiced it on occasion, that was still all it was: my opinion. At least, until now. A new study just came out suggesting that all of my arguments were spot on, though it wasn’t on the value of chess in schools. The study came out in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and was on the topic of geriatrics. 

The study was the product of 10 years of research and thousands of participants

The study was conducted on no fewer than 10,318 senior Australians aged over 70 and spanned a period of 10 years. The genders were split relatively evenly, with 52% of the participants being women, and aimed to see what activities they conducted and which showed the most useful in preventing the development of dementia. 

The National Institute of Health defines dementia as:

"...the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — to such an extent that it interferes with a person's daily life and activities."

Just to be clear: this is not Alzheimer's. Alzheimer’s causes dementia, the list of symptoms above, but dementia is not Alzheimer’s.

Nevertheless, the study did not focus on chess of course, which would be absurd, but rather categorized the activities into three main groups: 

  • Creative artistic activities such as craftwork, painting or drawing
  • Passive mental activities such as reading books, newspapers, watching TV or listening to music
  • And active mental activities such as writing letters, taking education classes, doing crosswords and puzzles or playing chess. Just to be clear, this is not my interpretation of what the researchers meant by active mental activities, these are the items the study specifically mentions.

Still, before declaring chess as the be-all and end-all of dementia prevention, bear in mind that the numbers suggested a 9% to 11% decreased likelihood of developing it, and was not some bulletproof vest. Even the passive mental activities helped, they just helped less. 

When speaking specifically about chess, the authors of the study opined that active mental activities showed the largest associations with reduced risk of dementia, possibly reflecting greater cognitive stimulation. And that it permitted higher efficiency in using brain networks.

They further added that many of these activities are competitive in nature and involve complex strategies and problem-solving. They use a variety of cognitive domains, including episodic memory, visuospatial skills, calculation, executive function, attention, and concentration.

So, while there is no guarantee it will prevent the development of such, If you are looking for excuses to play chess, and darn good excuses too, then this study is it. 

The takeaway from this is that just as we have learned the importance of exercise and diet for a prolonged higher quality of life, it is now crystal clear that the same applies to exercising our brains, and chess can very much be a part of that strategy. While neither physical exercise nor active mental activities will guarantee longevity of either body or mind, they do offer the best chances to live the years you do have with the most enjoyment and quality. As the Romans said, Mens Sana in Corpore Sano. A healthy mind in a healthy body.


Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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