ATHENS, Ga. — Mahjong, a tile-based game developed in China in the 19th century, is now played all over the world by millions. Usually contested between four people, Mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and a little bit of luck. Besides being a fun & challenging hobby, a new study finds that Mahjong may also be beneficial from a mental health perspective.
Regularly playing Mahjong was linked to reduced depression rates among middle-aged and older Chinese adults, according to researchers at the University of Georgia. The research team investigated a number of different social activities and their impact on mental health among a Chinese population sample.
Mental health has become a major problem in China. In fact, just China alone accounts for 17% of the global mental disorder burden. Furthermore, China, like many other nations, continues to see its older adult population increase thanks to improved medical care. Despite this, the rate of mental health problems in China linked to isolation or loneliness is on the rise.
It’s already been well established that maintaining an active social life well into adulthood and old age can be beneficial for mental health, but the majority of research on the subject has been performed in developed nations like the United States and Japan.
“Social participation manifests itself in different formats within different cultural contexts,” comments study co-author Adam Chen, an associate professor of health policy and management at UGA’s College of Public Health, in a media release. “Our paper provides evidence on the association between social participation and mental health in the context of a developing country. We also examined the rural-urban difference, which has not been examined extensively in this line of literature.”
Working together with scientists from China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Chen and his team analyzed survey data collected from 11,000 Chinese residents aged 45 or older. Depression symptoms among respondents were analyzed, and compared to their usual social interactions. Different types of social activities included playing Mahjong, visiting friends, playing a sport, and volunteering in the community.
Overall, the research team found that participating in a variety of social activities on a frequent basis was linked to strong mental health. Regarding Mahjong, older adults living in urban areas were less likely to be depressed if they played the strategy game.
While Chen says he expected to find Mahjong connected to improved mental health, he was surprised when their analysis indicated poorer mental health overall in rural areas of China compared to urban neighborhoods.
“Traditionally, rural China featured tight-knit communities of close kinship, often with a limited number of extended large families in a village,” he says. “We were expecting strong ties and communal bonds in rural China, but it appears that we were wrong.”
Researchers theorize that many of the strong bonds and social structures in rural China were disrupted over the past few decades due to a large number of residents opting to move closer to cities to find more work.
“What is more surprising is that mahjong playing does not associate with better mental health among rural elderly respondents,” Chen adds. “One hypothesis is that mahjong playing tends to be more competitive and at times become a means of gambling in rural China.”
The study’s authors hope their findings help promote more robust social programs for older Chinese adults. They also believe the study could prove beneficial to the greater Asian-American community as well.
“Older Asian Americans have a much higher proportion of suicidal thoughts than whites and African Americans,” Chen concludes. “Improving social participation among older Asian Americans may help to address this burden to the U.S. population health that has not received due attention.”
The study is published in the scientific journal Social Science & Medicine.