The Benefits of Playing Poker for Your Cognitive Health

Can poker improve cognitive health

The global prevalence of dementia is growing at an alarming rate. According to a forecast reported by the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of people with dementia is estimated to triple by 2050. (1) Although lifestyle improvements, access to education, and attention to heart health has reduced incidence in the past year, the total number is increasing due to the growing population of older adults. Moreover, obesity, diabetes, and sedentary lifestyle among younger people have likewise become risk factors for declines in cognitive health.

It’s critical then to control these risk factors, and actively care for our cognitive health. Physicians now commonly advise older adults to engage in mentally stimulating activity as a way of reducing their risk of dementia. (2) Participating in mentally challenging leisure activities such as reading and playing board games may help elderly people stay mentally sharp. Researchers found that people aged 75 years or more who engaged in leisure activities had a lower risk of dementia than other elderly people. (3) One way to do so is by playing poker, the classic card game of skill. Here are some cognitive benefits of mastering poker:

Exercising basic cognitive functions

If our plan for growing older involves staring at the television for hours and not doing much else, then our cognitive skills are likely to get rusty. Studies show that participating in complex activities reduces the likelihood of developing dementia. Poker is a brain-challenging game that works our memory, language, calculation, visuospatial, and critical thinking skills. When you play poker, your brain works hard to recall hands, observe body language, and do some math at the same time. Research on cognitive training also shows that playing with cards activates brain functions, including verbal fluency and motor impulsivity control. In part, poker does this by tapping into the brain’s neuroplasticity, or the process where the brain forms new connections between neurons. By challenging the brain through stimulation, you give yourself a mental workout.

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Honing strategic and analytic thinking

Poker increases our capacity to concentrate, control emotions, and intuit smart moves to bet effectively. It’s a highly strategic game that goes hand-in-hand with game theory. When we play against another human, there is an element of randomness involved. Players will have their own strategy, and we endlessly adjust our decision-making to our opponent’s play. While it may be doable to play a mathematically-perfect game against a computer, it’s impossible to find an optimal strategy for every player you’d sit at a poker table with — but that’s the beauty of it. Poker lets you analyze the situation and be creative, so you make the best possible bets with your hand.

Training to be a lifelong learner

Culturally, we have this notion that once we graduate from formal schooling, we’re done with learning for good. But that’s not true. We receive our adult education from different places. In fact, developing fresh insights or mastering skills can help us find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life. Actively engaging as lifelong learners can also lead to intellectual wellness, something that poker encourages us to pursue. Poker is a game where strategy is always changing, so those who refuse to adapt and learn will lose. In fact, professional poker players now have to study on how to play an analytical, optimal game. Modern poker strategy has evolved to consider mathematics and probability, so you won’t last long if you aren’t studying these concepts regularly. When you are a dedicated poker player, you’ll always pursue new knowledge with diligence.

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Boosting socialization skills

Recent studies have shown that socializing and cognitive health have strong ties to each other. Adults between the ages of 70 and 90 who reported more frequent, pleasant social interactions exhibit better cognitive performance on that day and the following two. Indeed, social isolation can be a critical risk factor for declining cognitive function in later life. Fortunately, poker is a highly positive social activity that lets players engage with friends in-person or even strangers online. You will practice social skills like reading emotions, detecting personality traits, and improving your social cues so you can effectively communicate with others on the felt.

While poker may have a reputation as a young person’s game, the above points show that it can be hugely beneficial for the cognitive function of older adults.

For older adults, health practices that could influence the brain include sound nutrition, sufficient sleep, stress management, treatment of mood or anxiety disorders, good vascular health, physical exercise, and avoidance of head trauma. Researchers in the US have found that keeping up reading, writing and playing games in later life could delay the onset of dementia by up to five years.  But there is no convincing evidence that memory practice and other cognitively stimulating activities are sufficient to prevent Alzheimer disease; it is not just a case of “use it or lose it.” Even though the evidence is not clear many professionals agree  “it can’t hurt.”

(1) Alzheimer’s Association®
(2)Educating the Brain to Avoid Dementia: Can Mental Exercise Prevent Alzheimer Disease?
(3) Mental activity may help prevent dementia

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