It seemed to be a routine tweet from chess grandmaster Susan Polgar last week. Only, her message had to do with more than just chess. It had to do with checkmating Alzheimer’s, a cause the chess icon is supporting, even sporting a team for the charity event “The Longest Day”.

“Checkmate Alzheimer's” is being hosted by the Susan Polgar Institute of Chess Excellence at Webster University and the chess icon’s Foundation at St Louis (US), as part of the Alzheimer’s Association event, scheduled for April 9.

“The Longest Day” is hosted annually by the Alzheimer’s Association usually on or near the summer solstice.

Longest day “We chose the longest day of the year, to honour those living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, for whom every day is the longest day,” says the Association, of the event where chess is played from sunrise to sunset to raise awareness.

While chess supports early education by helping students with critical thinking, problem solving and spatial skills, there is also strong evidence that games like chess may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and related dementias, the Association adds.

“Chess is a thinking game that takes a lot of brain power. The chess community is fortunate that we can still play a game we love, and Alzheimer’s has not taken away our ability to play,” Polgar says in the Association’s statement. So, borrowing a thought from an expert quoted in a Chess magazine years ago – does that mean a game of chess a day, can keep Alzheimer’s away? And, in a chess playing nation like India, could it help bring in greater awareness and support for the illness?

Psychiatrist TS Sathyanarayana Rao, also Editor, Indian Journal of Psychiatry, says that there is research to show that an active mind keeps Alzheimer’s at bay. It is recommended to keep the mind engaged through chess, crossword puzzles, Sudoku etc. The point is to use your brain or lose it, says Rao, adding that complex brain activity keeps the mind agile and strong.

More research needed Experts call for more research to calibrate the link between brain activity and reduced dementia. But a paper published in the IJP supplement (2009) “Harnessing brain and cognitive reserve for the prevention of dementia” concludes that people need to be told of the link between complex mental activity and reduced dementia risk.

“Given the negligible potential for harm, it is sensible to encourage all individuals to increase their levels of complex, enjoyable, and engaging cognitive activity for optimal brain health, particularly after retirement.” Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and about 44 million people are estimated to have dementia globally, 4 million of them in India.

Stressing the need for greater intervention, caregiver Kannamma Raman cites the example of Scandinavian countries where trained support is given and people are encouraged to play games and stay engaged to keep the mind from sliding.

It is very difficult otherwise, says Raman who teaches at Mumbai University, recalling the time her father virtually became a “bag of bones” in the period her mother had dementia.