Brain Games

mahjong tiles artPreserving cognitive capability is something I am very interested in. I would like to avoid mental decline or delay it for as long as possible. A number of things have been found to help keep the brain fit, including being engaged in challenging and stimulating activities on a regular basis. That’s how I ended up with a group of fascinating women who have been teaching me how to play Mahjong.

For those who aren’t familiar with this ancient Chinese game, it looks like a cross between Rummy and dominoes. But there are complex rules and convoluted procedures to follow. While each player draws and discards tiles with each turn, instead of building matches or runs like in the card game, you are limited to a specific set of prescribed combinations to assemble. And before play can begin, there is a series of rituals to follow. It’s mind-boggling.

The first time I played, I was overwhelmed. There are 144 different tiles to keep track of. There are strange suits with different names, depending on the version you are playing (ours were called Bams for Bamboo, Dots for Circle, and Craks for Character). Then there are other tiles called Wind and Dragon and Flower, and Jokers that I still am not sure how to use. Stumbling through the first few hands, I felt like I did when I returned to college after more than 20 years. My brain was on overdrive.

But the women in the group were patient, gently guiding and encouraging me. They kept reminding me that my frequent blunders were normal for a beginner. They were so sweet and kind, it made me want to keep trying, and by the third time I played with them, I was starting to understand what to do.

I went to a conference on aging last week and one of the sessions was about the brain’s lifelong ability to generate new cells and connections. The presenter explained that the more you enjoyed a new and difficult activity, the greater the cognitive benefit. I guess my foray into the world of Mahjong was paying off.

When I got back home, I joined the women to learn another game, Quiddlers. This was more my speed. The object is to make words from the letter (and letter combination) cards you drew, and you get more cards with each hand played. Keeping score was easy and I loved making words out of all kinds of odd groups of letters. Compared to the Mahjong playing, this was accompanied by much more conversation and laughter around the table. Players were even helping each other find higher-point words by the end.

Learning to play both games give my brain a workout and in the process of learning them, I may have started building new neural pathways in my brain. Given that I find the games and the company enjoyable, I’ve no doubt done my brain some real good. And in the process, I’ve made some delightful new friends and had lots of fun.

Challenge and stimulation are good for the brain. So are supportive relationships. What can you do to maintain brain health? Take your pick: adequate sleep, good nutrition, physical activity, playing a musical instrument, learning a new language, driving a different route, or adding something else to your day that is fun and engaging. If you can do it with some terrific people, all the better. Decide today to do your brain a favor. You’ll thank yourself later.

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