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Bridge to Somewhere

Enjoy bridge's social aspect—and the payoff for your brain.

JUST BEFORE KATRINA slammed into the Gulf, retired math teacher John Brumfield loaded up his car in New Orleans and drove out of the hurricane's kill zone, to Jackson, MS. And as soon as the weather cleared, Brumfield went back to what he's been doing four or five times a week since college: playing bridge. His bridge partner in Jackson was another New Orleans evacuee, and until he returned home five weeks later the pair played against a couple of Jackson residents. "It's a fun game," says Brumfield. "A very competitive game. I enjoy the logic of it, you could say. And I've made a lot of friends playing bridge. We run around together, do dinner parties and that kind of thing. People in Jackson play in our tournaments in New Orleans, so I knew several people there."

It's especially good to have friends during hurricanes and evacuations, but bridge, a partnership card game that originated in the Middle East in the 19th century, has even more going for it: It can sharpen your wits, help ward off Alzheimer's, and even make you physically healthier.

Your Brain on Bridge. Bridge works its magic through sheer complexity. Players must remember each player's cards, which builds memory skills. They must plan ahead, strategize, and use logic, all of which challenge and stimulate the brain. Plus bridge is played in groups. According to a study of adults 50 and older published in the Journal of Gerontology, social interaction markedly decreased intellectual decline.

In a study published in the June 19, 2003 issue of New England Journal of Medicine, researchers followed the leisure activities of 469 senior citizens for five years. Those who regularly played cards showed a greatly reduced incidence of dementia, while those who exercised exhibited little change from the normal population. Daryl Fisher, who taught English, speech, and debate at a New Orleans private school before moving to Rolla, MO, could have told you that from his own experience. "When I taught bridge to retired adults," he says, "you could see their interest in life perk up as they made friends and got hooked on the game."

Immunity Booster. A more bridge-specific University of California, Berkeley, study in 2000, coordinated by Marian Cleeves Diamond, a professor of integrative biology there, shows that playing bridge increases the number of immune cells. For her research subjects, Diamond chose a group of 12 female bridge players at a club in Orinda, CA. The women, in their 70s and 80s, were divided into three groups; two groups played bridge for 90 minutes, the third didn't. Blood samples were taken before and after play. The two bridge-playing groups showed a significant increase in CD-4 positive T cells, which seek out and destroy foreign bodies in the body. The third group displayed only a modest increase. The study, which Diamond presented at a New Orleans meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, suggests that brain activity might be able to stimulate the immune system.

Reasons to Love It. "Bridge is casual and funny and serious all at the same time, and you make lifelong friends," says Jennie Sauviac, who has played since 1972 and teaches bridge at the Louisiana Bridge Center. "Family pictures are a must." Daryl Fisher agrees. "Lots of get-togethers for couples revolve around bridge friends," he says. "Groups get together every month or so to have a social evening to cook dinner and play a friendly hand of bridge outside the club scene. Sometimes a romantic interest can develop," he adds. "People have ended up marrying someone they met at bridge. Sometimes it's their second or third marriage." Sounds great—so long as the first two marriages didn't end because a spouse was always off somewhere playing bridge.

Phil Scott is the author of Hemingway's Hurricane. He has written for Scientific American and New Scientist and regularly covers brain research for NRTA Live & Learn. This article appeared originally in NRTA Live & Learn, Fall 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.