Playing Mahjong is Good Exercise for Your Brain

My grandfather lived until he was 100 years old. For a large part of his life, he was physically and mentally pretty fit for a man his age. I think I have always taken it for granted that long life and good health ran in his family until I learned that he was a very active man for much of his life – both physically and mentally. In his youth, he represented his school in tennis and football. I have also heard that he swam the Hong Kong channel. He was also a very mathematical man and played a lot of mahjong. Could this be part of the reason why he has maintained such good health for so long?

We all know the benefits of physical activity. What I wanted to explore was the effect of playing mahjong…

How Does Playing Mahjong Benefit the Brain?

It is said that mahjong is a great game for keeping the mind sharp and it is recommended among the elderly as a means of keeping their brains in good health. Before I continue, I should clarify that this is the 4 player mah jong game (sometimes also played with 3 players – which has become popular in recent times) as opposed to mahjong solitaire. If you read the rules for playing mah jong, you will understand the mental complexity of this game and the mental finesse required just to play it let alone play it well. When I first learned the game, it was all I could do to keep track of all the rules and make sure that I qualified to win the game. It kept me so busy that I barely even noticed what my opponents were up to. If you can’t keep track of your opponents’ games, it puts you at a significant disadvantage because you can end up playing into their hands, literally.

MahjongA game of mahjong is an excellent mental workout. I reckon it is about as intensive a brain trainer as they come. It is not surprising to read that mah jong has been found to preserve function and delay decline in elderly individuals with dementia, even in those with significant cognitive impairment. If you extrapolate this further – if it is good for the prevention of age-related decline, then it ought to be good brain training for younger people as well.

Regardless of frequency of playing, mahjong produced consistent gains across all cognitive performance measures – digit forward memory, verbal memory, and MMSE. The effects lasted after mahjong had been withdrawn for a month, suggesting that constant practice is not necessary to achieve therapeutic effect once an initial threshold is attained. – International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry

Like chess, mahjong is a complex strategy game, and since chess is good for developing the brain and enhancing academic performance, then I think we can expect that mahjong should also provide the same benefits.

Inspired? Check out the following mahjong resources to get started:

I feel I should add that playing the digital version isn’t quite the same as the physical game since the computer does a significant portion of the brain work for you. It is good if you don’t have anyone to play with, though.

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