Poker is a game of skill, strategy, and psychology. It requires you to constantly analyze the situation, calculate things like pot odds, and read your opponents. But could playing poker also have measurable, direct benefits for your brain health?
Legend of the game Doyle Brunson is said to have declared that he never met a poker player that developed Alzheimer’s. But is it actually true, or was ol’ Texas Dolly just telling a tall tale, as big as some of his bluffs?
RIP Doyle, the legend among legends. My favorite story from him was that no matter how old, he’s never met a poker player that developed Alzheimer’s. I often found myself retelling this to others throughout the years as it says so much about the game we all love.
— Eugene Katchalov (@EugeneKatchalov) May 15, 2023
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting millions of people worldwide and causing memory loss, confusion, and behavioral changes. It is caused by the accumulation of abnormal protein deposits called amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain, which impair the function of neurons. While it seems improbable that a card game could help to stave off such a terrible disease, there is in fact some evidence that supports that theory.
But exactly how can poker help in the fight against this devastating condition?
(Check) Raise your cognitive abilities
One of the main factors that could protect your brain from cognitive decline is cognitive engagement, which means challenging your mind with mentally stimulating activities. Poker is a perfect example of such an activity, as it involves complex decision making, problem solving, and mental arithmetic. By playing poker regularly, you could keep your cognitive abilities sharp and prevent them from deteriorating over time.
A study by Williams et al. (2010) assessed the strength of evidence for various risk or protective factors for Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. They found that cognitive engagement and physical activities are factors showing a fairly consistent association with decreased risk of AD and cognitive decline. They also noted that “cognitive engagement may be more important than education in maintaining cognitive function with aging”. That completely-wiped, exhausted feeling you get after coming away from your final table run? That’s a sign of focused cognitive engagement.
Another study by Dartigues et al. (2013) followed 3,675 non-demented participants for 20 years and found that board game players have a 15% lower risk of developing dementia than non-players. And if you’ve ever had your set lose to a flush draw with one card to come, you know that 15% is a lot! While not the same disease as the Alzheimer’s mentioned by Doyle, even partially helping to prevent dementia would be a huge benefit. The researchers also found that board game playing was associated with less cognitive decline and fewer instances of depression in elderly participants. Specifically, they suggested that games involving strategic decision-making “could be a relevant way to preserve cognition and to prevent depression in the elderly”.
Turn more outs from stress and depression
Another factor that could increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline is stress and depression. Chronic stress and depression can affect your mood, sleep, and immune system, as well as trigger inflammation and oxidative stress in your brain. These processes can damage your brain cells and contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, playing live poker could help you reduce your stress and depression levels by providing you with social interaction, enjoyment, and relaxation. Poker is a social game that allows you to interact with other players, make friends, and have fun. Much research has been devoted to the benefits of social interaction, enough that we won’t cite them here. But what about specifically the mechanical nature of poker itself? Could that be of some benefit? For that, we look to the other booming competitive game: chess.
A study by Lillo-Crespo et al. (2019) reviewed the literature on whether chess practice could mitigate signs, deliver benefits, or improve cognitive capacities of individuals with dementia. They concluded that “the practice of chess is a protective strategy in the development of dementia from a preventive perspective.”
While the Lillo-Crespo study focused on chess, it seems probable to extrapolate these results to poker as well. A 2016 study conducted by partypoker used an EEG and monitored the brain activity of poker players, both amateurs and experts.
It’s worth reading the entire linked article, but for example on the turn card amateurs are more likely to exhibit activity in the front right side of the brain (linked with emotion), whereas the expert player engages both sides of the brain (which indicates an association with solving mathematical problems). To thus take our theorizing a step further, these health benefits may only be manifest when an individual is playing poker at a high level. So, get in the lab, enroll with one of the great poker training sites out there, and level up your game, for the sake of your brain!
Know when to hold ‘em … and when to consult your physician
One of the challenges of diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s disease is that it is often detected at a late stage, when the brain damage is already severe and irreversible. Therefore, medical professionals state it is important to monitor your brain health regularly and seek medical attention if you notice any signs of cognitive decline.
Self-awareness is one of the most important aspects of any health monitoring. Playing poker could help you have a more objective opinion of your own brain health, by providing you with instant feedback on your mental performance and helping you notice the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s. If you notice that you are making more mistakes, forgetting the rules, or losing track of the game, it could be a sign that something is wrong with your brain. By being aware of these changes, you could seek early diagnosis and intervention, which could slow down the progression of the disease.
While scientific research to back this claim has not been completed, this writer personally believes that continuing to improve in the game of poker necessitates self-awareness at a higher level than average. Success in poker requires knowing when you are beaten in a hand, knowing when you are making mistakes and should correct them before a downswing gets worse, knowing when you’re the best player at the final table and should refuse that chop and when you are evenly-matched and should call it a night.
The game that we know and love is chock-full of reality checks, and I don’t see how you could continue to play it and improve at it without rigorous awareness of your own cognitive function. But it does require one thing that can be hard for poker players: denying your ego and being honest with yourself. And in this case, the stakes are higher than your stack: we’re talking about your life.
Poker is not only a fun and exciting game, but also a potential way to protect your brain from Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. By playing poker regularly, you could stimulate your cognitive abilities, reduce your stress and depression levels, and monitor your brain health.
Of course, a card game is not a magic bullet that can prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline. You should also maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and social support, and perhaps most importantly consult your doctor if you have any concerns about your brain health or notice any signs of cognitive decline.
But there is some evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, to support Doyle Brunson’s theory that poker players are far less likely than the general population to be afflicted, tragically, by Alzheimer’s. So shuffle up and deal, and just maybe you’ll help your brain make a deep run in the tournament of Life.
- Dartigues JF, Foubert-Samier A, Le Goff M, Viltard M, Amieva H, Orgogozo JM, Barberger-Gateau P, Helmer C. Playing board games, cognitive decline and dementia: a French population-based cohort study. BMJ Open. 2013 Aug 29;3(8):e002998. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002998. PMID: 23988362; PMCID: PMC3758967.
- Juszczyk G, Mikulska J, Kasperek K, Pietrzak D, Mrozek W, Herbet M. Chronic Stress and Oxidative Stress as Common Factors of the Pathogenesis of Depression and Alzheimer’s Disease: The Role of Antioxidants in Prevention and Treatment. Antioxidants (Basel). 2021 Sep 9;10(9):1439. doi: 10.3390/antiox10091439. PMID: 34573069; PMCID: PMC8470444.
- Lillo-Crespo M, Forner-Ruiz M, Riquelme-Galindo J, Ruiz-Fernández D, García-Sanjuan S. Chess Practice as a Protective Factor in Dementia. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Jun 14;16(12):2116. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16122116. PMID: 31207926; PMCID: PMC6617066.