Brain Games: Does Playing Poker Help to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?
Yesterday, at the annual iGaming North America Conference currently taking place in Las Vegas, Rich Muny from the Poker Players Alliance led a most enlightening panel discussion which included two of the game’s experts — David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth. Aside from being longtime players, both are perhaps best known as prolific authors via their association with the poker and strategy website TwoPlusTwo.com.
As the panel discussion neared a conclusion, I asked Sklansky what factors might contribute towards igniting another poker boom similar to what we experienced during 2003-2007. I also inquired as to whether a repeat of those golden years was even a remote possibility given the perfect storm of circumstances which must align in order to create a new popular phenomenon.
Sklansky, true to his reputation for thinking way beyond the usual parameters of expectation, noted that if scientific research could somehow prove a direct link between playing poker and preventing Alzheimer’s (and other diseases of dementia and mental deterioration), such news might trigger another tidal wave of enthusiasm for the game. Naturally, if a link was indeed established, such news would not just bring new people into poker rooms and cardrooms, and particularly more older players, it might even change the way we manage senior care. Such news would certainly have an impact on the study of geriatrics.
Conducting a scientific study on this subject would be challenging for a number of reasons. However, anecdotal evidence does seem to suggest playing poker at the very least slows down the loss rate of mental decline. Consider that several Alzheimer’s-related organizations and websites already recommend various brain games for those who have been medically diagnosed with the disease. Yet, might this mantra of exercising the brain be a case of too little, way too late? Aside from trying to keep diseased brains active well after the fact and the damage is underway, the real question screaming to be asked is if long and consistent exposure to brain games actually decreases the chances of suffering Alzheimer’s and other mental afflictions later in life.
Oddly enough, much of the advice doled out by mental health organizations makes a clear distinction between games of “stimulation” versus “competition.” (READ MORE HERE) I find this distinction to be both flawed and unnecessary. Games like crossword puzzles and other forms of stimulation may indeed be helpful to mental health. However, the intensity of competition would seem to heighten what we’re really going after. After all, a poker game played for real money as opposed to just for fun is infinitely more invigorating for the participant. The repetition of constantly thinking and making strategic decisions and then sweating the outcome, hand after hand over many years, would certainly seem to be more advantageous to the health of that mind than the occasionally passive exercise of lazily filling in a crossword puzzle or playing other non-competitive games.
Indeed, this wasn’t the first time Sklansky and I had discussed this topic. He brought up the idea of conducting this kind of study to me at the World Series of Poker only a few years ago. Although we both lack the necessary resources to carry out this kind of research without lots of support and data, he suggested making an examination of as many longtime poker players as possible and then comparing the rates of Alzheimer’s Disease among the poker population versus the general mainstream. While this would be a noble pursuit and an interesting question with ramifications that go far beyond simply what’s good for poker, unfortunately the sample size of lifelong poker players who are now seniors (and thus more subject to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s) simply is not big enough to generate conclusive evidence. However, as increasing numbers of professional poker players continue to age and become seniors, a study might eventually be possible and would certainly be meaningful.
A cursory glance at this is encouraging. Based on all the older poker players I know and that come to mind, I do not recall any of them who are suffering from Alzheimer’s. Neither are they “slow” mentally speaking. We often hear the term “sharp as a tack,” and that’s usually the way I’d describe many of the poker players I now regularly see who are in the 70s and 80s, the timeline when mental health does become a serious concern. Admittedly, my circle of poker players is a small sample, and totally unscientific. Yet, while most seniors do experience various health problems as they get older, there does seem to be some correlation between enjoying a positive mental condition and poker playing. Mental decline could indeed be significantly less common among active poker players. That would really be something, if it’s true.
Hopefully, we will soon get to the point when the proper research is done. Perhaps the findings will indicate a direct link between poker playing and drastically reduced rates of mental decline, to the point where the activity is preventative. If so, then every poker player wins.