Playing mahjong and betting on horse racing could decrease dementia risk, Hong Kong study finds

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Playing mahjong and betting on horse racing, two hugely popular but often maligned intellectual pastimes in Hong Kong, could help to decrease the risk of dementia in the elderly, the latest research in the city has confirmed.

Seniors have always been encouraged to stay active in order to delay the onset of the condition, but research – published in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Psychiatry last month – found that only some types of leisure activities are helpful in combating dementia.

“The most significant finding of this study is that engagement in intellectual activities in late life might be useful in delaying or preventing the onset of symptoms of dementia,” Dr Allen Lee Ting-chun, one of the researchers and an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of psychiatry, told the Post.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the Third Side convenor Tik Chi-yuen visited Ngan Fook, an elderly man living in a care home. She has been visiting Ngan in the run-up to Chinese New Year since 2003. Photo: Facebook

In the study conducted between 2005 and 2012, with statistical analysis performed from 2015 to 2016, the group of researchers followed a total of 15,582 Hongkongers aged 65 or older who were free of dementia for a median period of five years.

It found that those who remained free of dementia during the follow-up period had engaged in more varieties of leisure activities at the beginning of the study than those who developed incident dementia, with a larger proportion performing intellectual activities – such as such as reading, playing mahjong, board and card games as well as betting on horse racing.

Almost 67 per cent of those participants who showed no symptoms of dementia participated in intellectual activities, comparing to the 50.7 per cent of those who eventually displayed such symptoms.

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The proportion of participants engaging in social activities – such as going to social centres, participating in voluntary work or meeting relatives and friends – as well as recreational activities, including watching television or shopping, was however not significantly different between the two groups.

The study has also found that the proportion of respondents who continued participating in daily intellectual activities three years after the study began was larger in those who remained free of dementia than in those who developed dementia at years four to six. No such associations were found between the maintenance of social or recreational activities and lower incidences of dementia.

“This finding suggests that choosing the right kind of activity appears to be more important than engaging in various non-intellectual activities in preventing dementia,” it wrote.

A Hong Kong Playground Association survey in 2016 found that “resting and sitting” turned out to be the favourite pastime for more than 60 per cent of the city’s retirees.

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Elderly Commission chairman Dr Lam Ching-choi, also an adviser to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in the Executive Council, said the study was a good reference to the city with its large sample size and the long observational period.

“Elderly people should be encouraged not to engage in too many passive activities … but instead, activities that are more engaging, stimulating and also challenging in places such as community centres,” he said.

Although Leung Siu-yue, 82, no longer plays mahjong as often as during her younger years, she now enjoys her time playing a tile-based game akin to mahjong with her friends in Southern District Integrated Elderly Service Centre.

(left to right) Lam Yau, Leung Siu-yue, and Lau Kan-fat, from Southern District Integrated Elderly Service Centre. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“We don’t keep the tiles to ourselves but [we] display them, so we can help each other,” she said. “I can see some of us – whose minds used to be not too clear – make some progress over time.”

Intellectual activities have also proven to help Lau Kan-fat and Lam Yau keep their minds agile. The pair, both in their 90s, are among the most active members of the centre.

While Lau – an avid reader – likes to write poetry on whatever things that come to mind, Lam, once hit by a stroke, is enthusiastic about reading newspapers and fishing.

“You do not just stand there to fish – it requires a lot of thinking and technique,” Lam said.



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