Numerous studies show that so-called “brain games” may help people fight off dementia by improving cognitive function, and maintaining overall brain health.

One review published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics in 2016, shows that mentally stimulating leisure activities can help sharpen thinking skills that tend to wane with age.1

Creative outlets like learning a new instrument or a foreign language fall into this brain-stimulating category, and so do games like bridge, Scrabble, Sudoku, and more.

Now, new research points to another popular game that offers important memory-saving benefits. And it just so happens to be a favorite game of mine– chess.

In a 2019 review that was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers looked at 21 studies and research articles on cognitive function.2

A few of the studies suggested that cognitive skills associated with playing chess may serve as a protective measure against dementia.

Delayed Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

In one of the studies, researchers looked at 500 people over a five-year period. They found that those over 75 years of age who participated in leisure activities (including reading, playing board games such as chess, playing musical instruments, and dancing) may have delayed the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer disease by an average of 1.5 years.3

“There is increasing evidence that participation in cognitively stimulating leisure activities may contribute to a reduction of risk of dementia and cognitive impairment in later life,” the authors write.

Researchers found that the complex mental flexibility that chess, specifically, requires may help fend off dementia in older people. They concluded that playing chess may lead to the delay or even prevention of dementia in people not yet diagnosed.

Why? Researchers posit that chess challenges memory, calculation, visual-spatial skills, and critical thinking abilities, and may help reduce cognitive decline and postpone the effects of dementia as one ages.4

However, the researchers failed to draw any concrete conclusions on the impacts of chess on those people who were already struggling with dementia.

“Although chess is indirectly assumed to be a protective factor due to its cognitive benefits,” the authors write, “more studies are required to demonstrate, with strong evidence, whether chess could be a protective factor against dementia within the diagnosed population.”

Chess Not Your Game? No Problem!

There are plenty of ways to challenge your brain, but learning new things is key. Experts say brain games of all kinds may help with memory by building up cognitive reserve.5

Think of cognitive reserve as your rainy-day savings account that you set away for future use. This reserve, researchers say, may even help provide resilience against age-related memory loss and dementia.

An analogy might be an aging tennis player. Although she probably doesn’t play tennis as well as she did when young, she still plays it much better than someone her age who never touched a racket. She built up a “tennis reserve” when young that lasted into old age. Likewise, a person who builds up mental abilities has a bigger reserve to draw upon as the years advance.

And speaking of sports, you want to know what else helps with cognitive reserve? You guessed it … exercise! Because what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

Building Cognitive Reserve

In a newsletter, Dr. Julie Brody-Magid of Harvard Medical School says a healthy combination of exercise, brain games and other mentally stimulating activities is the best way to build up cognitive reserve.

“In this way, participating in brain games actually can help with cognition, but it’s a team effort,” says Dr. Brody-Magid.

Basically, what she’s saying is chess can’t do all the heavy lifting for brain health.

Researchers from the 2016 review that we mentioned earlier agree. “We recommend keeping cognitively, physically, and socially active in midlife and later life although little evidence exists for any single specific activity protecting against dementia,” the authors wrote.

I too believe the winning formula for a sharp memory includes regular exercise, social interaction, healthy diet and plenty of mental stimulation. And if chess happens to be your passion – so much the better!


  1. Yates, L., Ziser, S., Spector, A., ∓ Orrell, M. (2016). Cognitive leisure activities and future risk of cognitive impairment and dementia: Systematic review and meta-analysis.
  2. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16(12), 2116; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16122116 
  3. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa022252 
  4. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/12/2116 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3024591/ 

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