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Grandma Jean's board game prowess at age 91 may be the proof researchers seek about staying sharper longer

On a trip up north to the lake, a traditional family board game battle reveals a possible, real-life example of how participation may help keep your mind sharp. In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams digs into research and shares thoughts on why 91-year-old Grandma Jean continues to preside over every game — no matter how challenging — as winner.

Rummikub tiles set up to play the game
Board games as possible tools for maintaining mental acuity
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ROCHESTER — On Friday afternoons in the midst of Minnesota summers, highways swell with SUVs and other vehicles packed with people heading north to cabins, cottages and camping spots in the woods and on the lakes. My family makes the journey too, at least a couple of times every season.

When we get there, Grandma Jean always has a mound of melt-in-your-mouth sweet rolls waiting on the counter, bags of sweet corn ready to be husked and a pile of board games ready to challenge our minds in traditional battles of the generations.

And no matter which box we grab out of the pile, Grandma Jean — who turned 91 this year —presides most often as winner. She’s anecdotal proof that staying involved socially and keeping your mind active may truly help keep your mind sharp and delay cognitive decline.

The game that’s topped the pile this year is Rummikub.

“Who’s winning this round?” I ask, as I sit down at the table to witness the heated but hilarious contest being played by my two sons, hubby and Grandma Jean.

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“Not me, not the way I play,“ says Grandma Jean modestly, as she proceeds to lead her opponents into an intellectual and mathematical slaughter.

If you haven’t played Rummikub before, it’s sort of a combination of Gin Rummy and Scrabble, played with tiles that remind me of Mahjong. The game’s website notes that 70 years ago, Romanian toothbrush salesperson and entrepreneur Ephraim Hertzano invented the game as an alternative to cards, which the then communist-ruled government outlawed. It became popular in the U.S. after celebrity Don Rickles mentioned it on the Johnny Carson TV talk show. The tiles are donned with colored numbers and to win you have to get rid of all your tiles. The losers have to tally up the numbers on the remaining tiles in their possession.

“Some people can’t add anymore because of technology,” says Grandma Jean as she nods in the direction of my two sons who have both looked down to consult the calculators on their cell phones (note how she is careful to blame technology, not her beloved grandsons).

Her quick wit and sharp mind inspired me to find out what some of the research says about whether or not board games have any beneficial effect on memory. Results of a 2019 study in the Journals of Gerontology show that playing games, such as board games and cards, is associated with less cognitive decline over time. Another study published in the British Medical Journal in 2013 shows that board games may promote less cognitive decline and depression in elderly adults. And a third study, published in 2018 in the Frontiers in Psychology reports that playing a game of cards while being socially engaged, may help support executive function (focus, attention, reasoning) in older adults. The authors of that study suggest it's kind of a "use it or lose it" thing.

During my dive into research about whether or not board games keep you sharper longer, I did find some studies that suggest games may not help all that much. And others note that researchers just don't know for sure yet. But from my perspective, no matter what the science says, I'm going to keep on playing. Because if Grandma Jean's mental acuity is at all related to her board game prowess, maybe it will benefit me too.

And those board games have other benefits too — amazing and wonderful family memories.

So ... during this particular game, after Grandma Jean trounced her Rummikub opponents, she got up from the table and danced triumphantly while singing along to Danny Kaye's version of "Ballin' the Jack (written by Chris Smith and Jim Burris)."

"Spread your lovin' arms way out in space," sings Grandma Jean, who knows all of the lyrics. "You do the eagle rock with such style and grace. You put your left foot out and then you bring it back. That's what I call ballin' the jack."

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Thanks, Grandma Jean, for the inspiration, wonderful humor and sharkish tips on how to triumph with grace and love.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

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