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On Chess: Can chess prevent memory loss?

People enjoying a game of chess outside the Chess Club
Chess Club & Scholastic Center of Saint Louis
Can chess prevent memory loss? The Chess Club is partnering with SLU Medical School to find out.

Dr. Lauren Schwarz and colleagues at Saint Louis University School of Medicine are conducting a research study examining the effect learning and playing chess has on memory loss. The researchers are using neuroimaging to measure whether or not a specified program of playing chess results in functional changes within the brain. This study is being conducted with funding provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in Saint Louis.

Subjective cognitive complaints in older people occur with the normal aging process and are colloquially referred to as “senior moments.” Normal age-related cognitive changes are typically benign but manifest as modest declines in memory and learning, language, executive function and mental processing speed.

Normal aging, by definition, is not associated with objective memory deficits and does not cause impairment in daily activities. However, Mild Cognitive Impairment otherwise known as MCI, is age-associated but involves cognitive decline that is significant enough to be noticeable to others and demonstrable on a cognitive test. These impairments are not severe enough to interfere with daily life. 

It's estimated that about 10 to 20 percent of people over the age of 65 have MCI, and this risk is greater in men. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that MCI can be an indicator of people who are at risk of developing dementia and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease. Medications and non-pharmacological treatments have been studied and employed to reduce memory loss in older adults with dementia. The current chess study seeks to examine the effectiveness of complex cognitive activity (chess) on cognitive function and brain activity among older adults with MCI before the onset of dementia.

Individuals aged 60 and older with mild memory problems are being asked to participate. Those selected will be randomized into the chess intervention or control group. The Chess Club is providing participants in the intervention group with six weeks of chess education at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. These same classes will be offered to the control group once the study intervention is complete. The chess classes not only include learning the basics of chess, but also participants will be playing with each other as well as members of the Chess Club. Participants will be asked to practice chess on a tablet (provided to participants) several times a week for six months. During this time, memory and other cognitive abilities, as well as neuroimaging, will be used to measure the effectiveness of the intervention. Participants will be encouraged to continue to play chess, even after the six-month intervention is over. The hope is that learning and playing chess can slow the trajectory of memory loss over time and result in functional changes in the brain.

Interested individuals should call the study coordinator, Sue Brown, at 314-977-4818. All participants will need to undergo a screening visit to establish their baseline cognitive abilities and confirm the diagnosis of MCI.

Dr. Lauren Schwarz is an associate professor at Saint Louis University and is board certified in clinical neuropsychology.