Perhaps the last thing you might expect the average senior to do is to play video games. The arcade world is one most often relegated to the younger generations. Most seniors, who did not grow up living with multi-button controllers and the constant visual stimuli inherent to modern gaming, seem to have difficulty playing well, or even in picking up the basics. Indeed, most are put off by the complexity.
But it may surprise you to learn that research into the use of video gaming as a cognitive therapy has yielded some interesting results that may have far-reaching impact on senior health and memory care.
The adult brain isn't as inflexible as we once imagined it to be.
In a 2008 study published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, a group of neuroscientists at the University of Rochester showed that playing action-based video games was a potentially effective therapy for re-training visual cognition and pattern recognition.
Although the team was careful to note that not every brain responds in the same way (their study subjects were for the most part young adults) and that the ability to transfer improved visual recognition skills to tasks outside of the specific game on which each subject trained was inconsistent, they nevertheless felt that there was some promise in using high-stimulus games as a memory care tool.
Fast forward to 2013.
Last year, another team of researchers— these at the University of California, San Francisco—published the results of a four-year study into video games' efficacy as a cognitive therapy, following on the leads generated by the earlier University of Rochester findings.
This group wanted to determine whether improvements to cognition could be seen in older adults and if those improvements would hold in normal, everyday tasks.
The team used a multi-tasking racing game that tested cognitive flexibility.
At baseline, before practicing and training on the video game, even the youngest people who participated (twentysomethings) experienced a 26% drop in performance when asked to multi-task. For the oldest subject tier— persons 60-80 years old— that performance drop measured well over 60%.
Once the subjects had practiced, however, game performance rates rebounded-- improvement that wasn’t limited to the younger set.
Even the oldest participants showed marked improvement in performance; in fact, they became better at playing the game than untrained-but-video-game-savvy young adults. Their improved game performance lasted for 6 months, too, even without continued training.
But what was truly remarkable was that this study found short-term and long-term memory ability to focus attention both improved outside the bounds of the video game— even in the oldest test subjects.
After training on the video game, the 60-80 age group showed general improvement in memory and attention acuity tests.
Can video gaming "turn back the clock" on the brain?
After seeing the San Francisco results, at least one researcher thinks so.
According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, the study "shows you can take older people who aren’t functioning well and make them cognitively younger through this training."
That, he said, is "a very big deal.”
When the electrical activity of older participants' brains was monitored by ECG, researchers found that they began to appear "younger." Specifically, they showed drastic increases in their production of theta waves— electrical waves that are generated when the brain focuses close attention on something—after training on the racing game.
According to the study's findings, the older subjects' brains began to appear very much like younger adults' brains on the ECG readouts. In a sense, they were acting younger!
Video games aren’t a magic bullet, but they may hold promise.
Though the San Francisco team did caution that not all video games may help to re-train the brain's ability to focus and multi-task, they were encouraged by the results of their experiment.
“There’s a big leap between what we did here and the real world,” said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, the lead researcher on the project. "That is the most grabbing thing here. We transferred the benefit from inside the game to different cognitive abilities."
It will be interesting to see what further developments there will be in the field. In the meantime, and in honor of Video Games Day on September 12th, you might consider calling up the grandkids for a video game play date. Who knows? That round of Mario Kart may not only be fun, but could keep you living well (from a cognitive standpoint) long into your golden years.