Not Just Child’s Play: Video Games Could Slow Mental Decline

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The quick-thinking skills required in video games may be more helpful than crossword puzzles in slowing or even reversing declines in brain function that come with aging.

Researchers from the University of Iowa report in the journal PLoS One on a study of 681 healthy adults over the age of 50 who were assigned to play either a video game called Road Tour or complete a computerized crossword puzzle. The video game required players to identify an image of a car, displayed only fleetingly at the start of the game, to a similar image as well as a matching road sign from a series of constantly changing options, most of which are red herrings. With each successive stage of the game, players received less time to complete their matches, so they needed to rely on their quick-thinking and processing skills to complete the game.

After playing for 10 hours, either in the lab or at home, players gained the equivalent of three years of cognitive “reserve,” according to the researchers’ calculations, when they were tested on mental skills a year later. That meant that these players showed cognitive functions that could hold off declines in memory and other executive functions such as planning and reasoning for about three years compared with those who completed crossword puzzles. And the more training the participants got with the game, the better; those who played for an additional four hours seemed to hold back cognitive decline by about four years.

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Compared with the group that completed crossword puzzles, the video-game players also scored higher on tests of concentration, were able to switch more ably between different tasks, and process new information more quickly.

It’s not the first study to link video games to improved cognitive function, but most previous studies relied on brain-teaser games like Brain Age that specifically tap into executive-function skills. Road Tour required more rapid mental processing, rather than deeper intellectual thought, but still demonstrated benefits in not only preventing decline but also speeding up the progress of this protection.

“We know that we can stop this decline and actually restore cognitive processing speed to people,” study author Fredric Wolinsky, a professor in the University of Iowa College of Public Health said in a statement. “So, if we know that, shouldn’t we be helping people? It’s fairly easy, and older folks can go get the training game and play it.”

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With executive functions such as memory, attention, problem solving and perception skills starting to decline in middle age, the researchers hope that relatively simple strategies like playing video games might help more people to avoid, and possibly prevent, some of the cognitive declines that come with aging. “It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon,” Wolinsky said in the statement. “Age-related cognitive decline is real, it’s happening, and it starts earlier and then continues steadily. The good news is we can do something about it. The question is, will we?”