Can Gaming Slow Mental Decline in the Elderly?

Publication: Time Magazine
Published: July 11, 2009
By: Anita Hamilton

If you or your parents are of a certain age, then you may understand the unique terror of suddenly drawing a blank — that unexpected moment when you can’t remember the name of a lifelong friend or what you had for lunch that day. You wonder, anxiously, Have I stepped down the long, slow, inexorable road to losing my mind?

There is, of course, no cure for memory loss, and no preventive vaccine. Yet a rapidly growing body of evidence suggests that certain behaviors may reliably slow the effects of age-related cognitive decline. Chief among them: eating right, exercising and engaging in social activity and mentally challenging tasks.

It’s that last item that most interests psychologists Anne McLaughlin and Jason Allaire at North Carolina State University. The duo are part of a team that was just awarded $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to fund a four-year study of cognitive decline in the elderly — specifically, whether playing certain video games might help slow the effects of aging. The theory is that the strategy, memory and problem-solving skills necessary for mastering certain games may translate to benefits in the real world, beyond a glowing computer screen.

While funding is flowing quickly to new studies similar to McLaughlin and Allaire’s — the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, has pledged $8.5 million to study the impact of video games on everything from Alzheimer’s disease to driving skills — there is little existing evidence that gaming, which is widely dismissed as an elaborate form of mind rot, really holds any potential to slow the effects of aging. “I think it is silly for someone to run out and buy a game with the hope that it is going to help them age better. There is no proof that it is going to be effective,” says Columbia University neuropsychologist Yaakov Stern, who specializes in cognition in older adults and is conducting a video-game study of his own. “We know that cognitive stimulation is good, but we don’t know what type or the amount.”

The claims made by many brain-boosting websites and digital games, however, would have you believing otherwise. HAPPYneuron, a $100 Web-based brain-training site, entices visitors to “give the gift of brain fitness” and claims that its users saw “16%+ improvement” through exercises such as learning to associate a bird’s song with its species and shooting basketballs through virtual hoops. Nintendo’s best-selling Brain Age game promises to “give your brain the workout it needs” through exercises like solving math problems and playing rock, paper, scissors on the hand held DS.

Skeptics of such products say these claims are about as credible as a slicer-dicer infomercial. But others point to video-game research that suggests digital diversions have many advantages over similar analog training tools. “Video games are very integrative in nature. You have to multitask a lot,” says Chandramallika Basak, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. In the PC-based game Rise of Nations, on which Basak published a paper last year in Psychology and Aging, multitasking involves managing an empire with multiple cities and simultaneously defending one locale from attack while reviving the sinking economy of another. But the question is whether learning how to play Rise of Nations has any tangible cognitive benefits aside from just making you a better Rise of Nations player. That is, can gaming really improve memory, reasoning, analysis and the process of thinking?

In one study, presented last year at the Cognitive Neuroscientist Society’s annual meeting, psychologist and neuroscientist Helena Westerberg of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm compared the cognitive abilities of 45 young adults (average age 25) with those of 55 older adults (average age 65). She found that after five weeks of computerized training on tasks ranging from reproducing a series of light flashes to repeating digits in the opposite order that they were given, the older group was able to reach the same level of working memory, attention and reaction time that the younger group had at the outset. (Notably, the younger group had even greater improvements by the end of the training period.) “The program is always pushing them to do better,” says Westerberg, who notes that an advantage of video-game training is that the programs’ difficulty level continually adjusts upward to match players’ evolving abilities. “They have feedback and can see their scores.”

McLaughlin and Allaire’s new study will follow 270 seniors as they play the Wii game Boom Blox. Game play involves demolishing targets like a medieval castle or a spaceship using an arsenal of weapons such as slingshots and cannonballs. While those particular skills may not seem transferable to offscreen life, McLaughlin says she and her colleagues chose Boom Blox specifically because it requires a wide range of real-world skills, including memory, special ability, reasoning and problem-solving.

Ultimately, the researchers hope to determine which aspects of Boom Blox produce the largest gains in real-world cognitive functioning, like the ability to multitask, then incorporate those elements into a new game of their own design. They will then study the effects of the new game in the same group of elderly players. “One of our main goals is to produce guidelines for producing games for older adults. Part of it is making it fun so it does not feel like work,” adds McLaughlin.

McLaughlin and Allaire say they intend to identify exactly what components of video game play may help preserve mental fitness into old age. “Is it because it is novel, the level of attention required or the collaboration with other players?” asks Allaire, 35. He says he hopes that by the time he is a senior citizen, playing video games will be as commonplace for those over 65 as it is for young people today. “I think World of Warcraft will always be cool and kids will think their grandparents are cool for playing it,” he says. They might not be too pleased, though, when Grandpa beats them at their favorite game.