Chess: a cognitive training ground against brain aging

In the world of chess, after the age of 50 you become old. But that doesn’t mean you stop playing or competing. The masters and champions who are about to compete in the 2022 World Tag Team Championship, which will take place at the Acqui Terme June 20-29, are well aware of this. Athletes who do not have much to envy their younger colleagues, thanks to a brain kept in good shape through constant training: Chess – science also guarantees – is the perfect gym to hone cognitive skills and preserve the physiological effects of aging. Explain it to us Anna CantagaloNeurologist and Physiotherapist, Scientific Director of the Clinical Center Brain care Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Reggio Calabria.

Cantagalo, is playing chess a useful activity for the elderly?
Chess is a useful discipline at any age to maintain a healthy brain. During the game of chess, all areas of the brain are activated, not just those related to solving complex problems. The occipital lobe, for example, is intended for vision, and is necessary for developing mental patterns and making mental cycles while planning the next movements. The parietal lobe that allows an overview of the board and the frontal lobes that deal with planning and problem solving. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is also very active, dedicated to working memory, which is the random access memory in which the brain stores short-term environmental information, processes it, uses it, and then disposes of it, which is necessary for quick strategies during a match.

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Can we talk about a whole brain workout?
This is the case, especially if you are playing live. Since this is an activity in which you compete with another player, having them in front of you allows you to train the emotional functions of the brain. So it improves theory of mind and empathy, that is, the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and understand what they are thinking and what feelings they are experiencing. It also improves emotional control, because during the match we try to hide our thinking and emotions from the opponent.

How do we protect the brain from aging?
Like the rest of the body, the brain also needs training to stay healthy. The more brain activity, the more flexibility it retains, which becomes necessary from the age of 50 to slow the natural decline of our cognitive faculties. Such as working memoryWhich begins to deteriorate after the age of 45, or emotional control that falls below the age of 65. Any hobby that occupies our minds is useful in counteracting these effects of the passage of time. For those who love chess, many researches have shown that it is an ideal activity. A study of players aged 55 to 90, for example, concluded that if we measured the cognitive performance of those who attended a chess course, compared to those who devoted themselves to other games or activities, the performance of chess players is 65 percent higher. . Another study, which followed 500 people over 75 for five years, showed that those who played chess for an extended period of time could delay the onset of degenerative brain disease by an average of one and a half years.

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Is the game now and then enough to see these benefits? Or do you need some consistency in training?
After age 75, making use of chess as a gym requires a certain commitment: at least 10-11 hours per week. This does not mean that less intense activity is useless, but to obtain the benefits that resulted from the research, a significant time commitment is required. On the other hand, it is known that cognitive training takes time: about twice as much as physical exercise. And if we think that the World Health Organization recommends three to five hours of aerobic activity per week for older people to stay healthy, we see that all things considered add up.

Are there contraindications to playing chess in old age?
Any intense activity should be treated with caution. Competitive play can cause anxiety disorders, increased heart rate and lung gas exchange during matches. It must therefore be remembered that chess, especially if it is played at a competitive level, is a sport, albeit a sport of the mind. In fact, a competitive sports medical degree is required to participate in tournaments. However, the fact that it occupies the hearts and lungs means that playing chess can also be beneficial to the body, although it is considered a sedentary activity. While playing chess, you certainly can’t lose weight, but cardio activation improves resting heart rate variability, which is an important indicator of cardiovascular health.

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