COSHANDRA DILLARD, firstname.lastname@example.org
About 450 women filled several rooms at Willow Brook Country Club Thursday during the annual Mah Jongg for Memory Luncheon and Games Day - an event that centers on a popular brain game while raising money for the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County. The Alzheimer’s Support Auxiliary for People hosts the event each year.
Four people sat at each table to chat and enjoy fellowship as they shuffled through Chinese tiles and challenged themselves according to a card that instructed them on their next moves.
Many of the participants return each year, and most have played for decades. Some call the rules “strange” but they all noted it is a good way to engage in social activity - a factor important in the support of brain health. The event lasted for five hours, allowing participants to play multiple games. They get better the more they play, they said.
“It’s novel and it’s complex,” said Leslie Lindsey, community outreach coordinator at Alzheimer's Alliance of Smith County.
Now in its 15th year, the local event has become one of the largest mah jongg games days in the United States, and ASAP has the single largest Mah Jongg card orders in the country, according to the National Mah Jongg Association. Fans are unsure, however, when and how it became so popular in East Texas.
Mary Ann Eckert, ASAP treasurer, has organized the event since it was established.
“Every year we have a sell out,” she said.
When she moved to Tyler about 46 years ago it already was a popular game among many Tylerites. Thousands of cards were being sold to avid mah jongg fans.
“I love the game,” she said. “It’s good for your mind. That’s what we want to do: preserve the mind. There is so many people in East Texas and Smith County dealing with this disease and need help. We want to highlight the Alliance and we have fun doing it.”
Officials with the Alzheimer’s Alliance estimate more than 3,500 people in Smith County older than 65 are currently living with Alzheimer's or a related dementia.
Last month, the organization served more than 115 households, which includes one-on-one consultations, caregiver support, home assessments and respite care for family caregivers.
Officials said they are on track to provide comprehensive support to more than 1,000 families in East Texas this year.
Through grants and private donations, the Alliance provides more than 1,000 hours of in-home or overnight respite care each month to family caregivers.
From June 2015 to June 2016, they provided 64 full neuropsychological screenings, 310 brief memory screenings and more than 375 hours of direct counseling. All of the services were free of charge.
WHY THEY PLAY
Mary Schultz of Tyler first learned to play in a group at Hide-A-Way Lake. The 92-year-old has been playing for about 30 years.
“I think it was a way to meet new people,” she said.
At Ms. Schultz’s table of five, Vida Wooten said 16 years ago her doctor told her to try the game to improve memory. Also at the table, Rebecca Foster noted she has a friend with Alzheimer’s, underscoring the impact of the disease to her circle and why the fundraiser is important.
The allure of the Chinese game is being passed down to younger generations. Marcie Splann, along with Linsey Taylor, Janet McLeroy and Laura Sparks - all of Nacogdoches - were among the younger women in the crowd.
“I’ve been bringing them with me for four years,” Ms. Splann said. “My mom taught me how to play and my family are big game players.”
All of the women, in their 30s, have been touched by Alzheimer’s in their respective families. They get together during breaks and the summer to exercise their brains through mah jongg. It’s also a chance to have a girls’ weekend.
“It’s a nice fun way to come together,” Ms. McLeroy said. “It really does challenge you. And it helps people going through (dementia) to receive those services.”
In addition to registering for mah jongg, participants had a chance to buy items in a silent auction.
Proceeds from the event stay in Smith County. Since 2001, the Auxiliary has raised more than $400,000 for programs and services for East Texas families affected by Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.
Brain games, exercises could improve cognition
Doctors say Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is not a normal part of aging. Nonetheless, as many as 5 million Americans are living with it, while their families are greatly impacted. This progressive disease is marked by memory loss and cognitive decline, as it affects parts of the brain that control memory, judgment, language and complex motor skills.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that 14 million people will be living with Alzheimer’s disease by 2050, a nearly three-fold increase.
Several factors go into determining a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease, including age, family history and chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
According to the CDC, evidence also is growing for physical, mental and social activities as protective factors against Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s why people are encouraged to challenge the mind and play brain games such as mah jongg.
A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry suggests that mah jongg produced “consistent gains across all cognitive performance measures.”
The social activity itself is helpful in improving mood, according to a 2014 study published in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. In addition, social activity promotes the creation of new brain cells, according to the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Brain Health scientists.
- Coshandra Dillard