Videogames may do the aging brain good

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Older adults might want to take an interest in their grandchildren’s’ video games, if early research on the brain benefits of gaming is correct.

A visitor plays the "Halo Wars" video game during the 2008 E3 Media & Business Summit in Los Angeles July 15, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

In a study of 40 adults in their 60s and 70s, researchers found that those who learned to play a strategy-heavy video game improved their scores on a number of tests of cognitive function.

Men and women who trained in the game for about a month showed gains in tests of memory, reasoning and the ability to “multi-task.”

The findings suggest that videogames that keep players “on their toes” might help older adults keep their brains sharp, the researchers report in the journal Psychology and Aging.

This is the first published study to suggest as much, so it’s important not to overstate the findings, said senior researcher Dr. Arthur F. Kramer, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Still, he told Reuters Health, the results are “very promising,” as they suggest that strategy-based videogames can enhance reasoning, memory and other cognitive abilities that often decline with age.

The study included 40 older adults who were randomly assigned to either the video-game group or a comparison group that received no training in the game. Over 1 month, the gamer group spent about 23 hours training in “Rise of Nations,” an off-the-shelf video game where players seek world domination.

Ruling the world, the game group learned, requires a complex set of tasks, including military strategy, building cities, managing economies and feeding people.

Study participants who trained in the game ended up improving their scores in several areas of a battery of cognitive tests, Kramer and his colleagues found.

More research is needed to confirm and extend the findings, Kramer said. It’s not clear, he noted, if other strategic games would have the same benefits, or if the effects seen in this study persist over time.

Still, the findings are in line with research suggesting that older adults can improve their cognitive health by staying both physically active and mentally active through activities such as reading, writing or other hobbies.

“Playing videogames with their grandkids would also be a great idea,”

Kramer noted, “because we know that social interactions -- along with physical exercise and intellectual challenge -- also enhance the cognitive abilities of older adults.”

SOURCE: Psychology and Aging, December 2008.