The performance of the United States in the 2019 Rugby World Cup is something to quickly forget, having lost all four games in the group stages.

On the other hand, we may have fond memories of Tiger Woods’ triumphs, Michael Phelps winning any one of 18 gold swimming medals, or Michael Jordan leading the Chicago Bulls to six national championships.

Reliving great sporting moments like these has a purpose that goes far beyond a few brief moments of joy. It boosts and strengthens the brain.

The reason is something called “emotional memory.” Here’s a report from our UK correspondent, Michael Sellar. . .

Before the Rugby World Cup kicked off in Japan in September, Professor Alistair Burns, the director of dementia at the National Health Service in England, took advantage of the forthcoming tournament to point out the importance of sporting memories.

“For people in old age and those living with dementia, memorable sporting events provide a connection with the past, prompt conversations and improve mental health.”

He continued by saying that sport brings people together and enables them to share emotional experiences with lasting benefit. It’s a great way for anybody, but older people in particular, to socialize, make new friends and even find the inspiration to take up physical activities.

Emphasizing the importance of emotional memory, he added, “Watching classic games and reliving tense moments can stimulate powerful emotional memories which can be revived many years after the events.

“Emotional memory, which is one of two main types of memory in the human brain, can be more powerful than memory for personal events, so as people in later life relive exciting or tense moments, this can stimulate memories, potentially strengthening brain activity.”

“Details may fade,” Professor Burns concluded, “but the thrill, buzz and intensity of sporting drama stays lodged in our minds — and reawakening them keeps the brain match-fit.”

Sports Stir the Soul

The UK charity Sporting Memories was set up specifically for people to connect with their past, rekindle memories, keep the brain active and socialize with other sports fans.

One of its co-founders, Tony Jameson-Allen, said that recalling great sporting moments can help tackle dementia, depression and loneliness.

“Sport unites communities and generations; it stirs the soul and can reawaken powerful emotions. Every week we witness the positive impact recalling great sporting moments has on the physical and mental well-being of our group members, many of whom live with dementia.”

Another co-founder, Michael White, who runs sessions in Scotland, said the impact the meetings have on participants prove the concept works.

He recalls, for instance, a quiet, reluctant member of the day center called Bill. He came out of his shell only after the Sporting Memories group started up.

He was shown soccer photographs from the 1940s and 50s. This stimulated his memory and he started talking about his life as a soccer player. It turned out he had played for the Scottish national team no less. Up until then nobody in the center had any idea about his sporting career.

Mr. White said that Bill’s reaction was the proof he needed to use sporting images to trigger memories.

“I only had to show Bill a picture…and we were off. It was simply amazing to watch.”

Remembering Clearly, 60 Years Later

John MacKinnon is chaplain to a professional soccer club in Scotland and is involved with the Sporting Memories program in the local community.

“We’re finding they can recount and recall stuff that’s meant a lot and it’s still there, and out it comes, and you see the smile and you see the joy — you see the remembrance,” he said.

“It’s amazing the guys that come in here who can name the team line-ups of their given team from 1958/59.”

The wife of an attendee summed up the importance of the Sporting Memories program to her husband:

“He loves coming to these sessions. He told his brother these clubs are his whole life — and that’s what gets him through, I think.”

Possibly the main lesson here is that we could draw out some dementia patients, and reengage them, simply by talking about the things they were passionately interested in when young.

I wonder if friends, relatives and caregivers do enough of that.