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Holladay • A group of Salt Lake County women have routinely gathered together to play bridge, some for almost 60 years. The long-standing habit perhaps has contributed to their mental keenness, well-being and longevity.

"We play for big money," Holladay resident Leah Hilton grinned of the quarters and nickels the winners haul home at the end of the day.

At 85, Hilton is about midway in age between the youngest and oldest of the eight card sharks. In addition to raising three children, Hilton said she also worked as a dental assistant and office manager for about 25 years.

Ethel Brewster, the eldest at 95, raised three children and said she worked several years as an accounts payable clerk. She and husband Wayne have been married for 71 years. Brewster recalled how the bridge club began.

"We all moved into a neighborhood of new houses … we were young married couples and we all had little children," Brewster said of the Valley View subdivision that sprouted near 6300 South and 2200 East in the early 1950s.

"My youngest child was born when we first started. He's 58 now," Brewster said as she pondered her lunch order at the International House of Pancakes in Holladay, one of the spots where they congregate on the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of each month.

"This is our Isabel," Hilton said, nodding toward Isabel Sanchez, the smiling server who seemed to have some of their orders memorized.

That devotion flowed in both directions.

"You're my ladies," Sanchez grinned back, noting that she's attended to their food and beverage needs for at least five of the nine years that she's waited tables there. "I fight for them. They could all be my mom."

Each of the eight women drives themselves to the bridge sessions, with 89-year-old Gwen Leitch making the 26-mile trip from Lehi since moving in with one of her sons last fall.

"I have three children, 15 grandchildren and my 41st and 42nd great-grandchildren are due this summer," Leitch beamed enthusiastically. "I had a picnic on the floor with my little greats last week."

Marjean North, the youngest of the group at 78, claims she still feels "like I'm 68."

North drew laughter when she reminisced about the time her grandson asked if she ever had any children. When she explained that his mother was one of her five kids, the boy said that just couldn't be, because his mother was 36.

Soon the women settled into the business of playing cards.

Brewster opened with two diamonds, a maneuver that drew quick comment from 88-year-old Marion Palmer.

"Oh wow, that means she has a very good hand," Palmer said.

Strategies percolated and conversation flowed, with tales of friends and family woven in with talk of shared aches and pains.

"We switched to the large face cards when we couldn't see them," said 84-year-old Rae Lindquist, also from Holladay. "It was a mutual thing."

Some research points to bridge as beneficial beyond the actual hours spent in the game.

A preliminary study, released in November 2000 by University of Berkeley-California professor Marian Cleeves Diamond, indicated a link between playing bridge and elevated levels of white-blood cells that help ward off disease by bolstering the human immune system.

A 2003 study, conducted by a team of researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, found that playing bridge, chess or a musical instrument significantly lowered the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist who founded the Brain Health Center, Inc. that will open near Pittsburgh, Penn., this fall, has lectured on brain health around the United States and in other countries for 15 years.

Nussbaum advocates a holistic approach to brain fitness that includes nutrition, socialization, mental stimulation, physical activity and spirituality.

"When you put your brain in a new and difficult situation, it likes that," Nussbaum said, referring to "brain resilience" that forms when the mind is actively engaged. "It's not a cure, not even a prevention — but it provides a natural defense that can delay the onset of Alzheimer's."

Nussbaum figures that the Holladay bridge players are reaping rewards well beyond the nickels and quarters they toss in the kitty.

"Bridge is complex, so they're having to think in new ways," Nussbaum said. "They're sharing stories and having fun, so they're reducing stress. Maybe they can do a little walking and eat some fish — within a few hours they've been given all the elements that promote the health of the brain."

To this female gang of eight, they've found few things better than sharing life together over a fistful of cards.

"I think it helps keep the mind sharp. They say it does," Hilton said. "It gives me something to look forward to, that's for sure."

Twitter: @catmck