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Can board games help preserve cognitive function?

While there’s loads of research on the (positive and negative) effects of video games on the brain, far fewer studies have been conducted on the possible effects of board games on cognition. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, in the United Kingdom, posited that playing cards, chess, or bingo could help maintain cognitive abilities. Let’s take a look at this research carried out on participants who were only 11 years old when the research began, and who are now 79!

Among the various types of interventions that could potentially promote “successful cognitive aging,” scientists have already shown that enjoyable activities, like cards, crosswords, and sudoku can have a positive effect on cognitive decline (see the article: The longitudinal nature of this particular study is what makes it stand out. Indeed, Drew M. Altschul and Ian Deary used the results of a cognitive ability test (the Moray House Test, MHT), which involved participants (age 11), and took place in 1936 (Lothian Birth Cohort – LBC). This cohort gave scientists an initial measurement of general cognitive function in these individuals. Many years later, between 2004 and 2017, some of these subjects were reassessed through 4 waves of health and cognitive tests: at 70 (1091 subjects), 73 (866), 76 (697), and 79 (550). Factors related to gender, social class, education, activity level, and health problems were all controlled for. The tests were administered individually to evaluate skills that tend to decline with age: visuospatial skills, problem-solving, processing speed, and memory.

During the first and fourth waves (at 70 and 79), the participants filled out a more detailed questionnaire on their social and physical activity. They were asked to indicate how often they played analog games, such as cards, bingo, chess, or crossword puzzles (several times a month to less than once a year/never). Note that at 70, 33% of subjects declared playing games frequently.

The researchers then used statistical models to analyze the relationship between the subjects’ level of play and their cognitive abilities. They found consistent evidence that frequently playing analog games is associated with relatively lower cognitive decline between the ages of 11 and 70, and between 70 and 79. The average decline occurs (regardless of play frequency) during the eighth decade, but it tends to be more severe in those who play only occasionally. Thus, while controlling for the variables mentioned earlier, people who play more often demonstrate a higher cognitive reference performance from the age of 70. These results are particularly significant in the areas of general cognitive function and memory performance.

The longitudinal aspect of this study over 70 years thanks to the LBC 1936 cohort is almost certainly one of the unique strengths of this research. The authors do indicate that the recruitment process in elderly subjects tends to self-select volunteers who are often well-educated and who tend to age well. The results of the study must be kept in perspective, since they may be biased toward wealthy individuals and/or individuals with higher cognitive function that might be willing to play games more regularly.

Despite this limitation, the researchers concluded that playing cards or other analog games could help improve long term cognitive health, stating that “It'd be good to find out if some of these games are more potent than others,” and reminding readers that “several other things are related to better cognitive aging, such as being physically fit and not smoking.”
Source: Drew M. Altschul, Ian J. Deary. Playing Analog Games Is Associated With Reduced Declines in Cognitive Function: A 68-Year Longitudinal Cohort Study, in The Journals of Gerontology: Serie B, Nov. 2019


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