A natural part of getting older is a decrease in brain function. There are many different factors that affect how well our brain functions as we age, including our diet, genetics, and disease. One area that is often overlooked is stimulating the brain. Just like any other part of the body, our brains need regular exercise. A study by a team from the University of California in San Fransisco shows that the elderly may benefit from playing video games.
Video Games as Mental Exercise
Researchers created a custom video game to test how these video games could improve the cognitive ability of the elderly. There have been many different “brain-training” video games that promote their ability to help increase the effectiveness of our brains; though, there is no conclusive evidence that these games have any benefit for young healthy people. The point was to show if the elderly would benefit from additional stimulus to their brain.
This all started from earlier research that showed that the older a person gets, the more sensitive they are to interference to their cognitive abilities. This interference refers to both distractions and using the brain to multi-task. With this in mind, the team came up with the blueprint for their current study.
Custom Video Game
In order for the team to test their study, they created their own video game. They called this video game NeuroRacer. Since our brain’s ability to handle cognitive control declines with age, they needed a specific game to test this out. In the game, users had to steer a car with a joystick while they drive down a winding road. They added to the difficulty by having colored shapes pop-up on the display. The test subjects would steer the joystick with their left hand and respond to the shapes with their right hand. As players were required to respond to the shapes, they found it more difficult to keep their car in the center of the road; further showing the difficulties with multi-tasking.
The Results Matched the Theory
For this study, the team used 30 different subjects. These subjects were divided into six different age groups in ten year intervals, with subjects ranging from their seventies down to their twenties. As expected, each age group performed slightly worse than the age group below them. This matched their theory that cognitive ability declines with age.
The next aspect of the study that was examined was whether players could improve their cognitive ability with practice. This brings the team to the second phase of their study. Taking a group of players that fell into the 60 to 85 age range, they had they had the players play the video game for three hours every week for a whole month.
Researchers discovered that the players from this second study were able to improve their performance. At the start of the second phase, players failed 64% of the time. By the end of the month, the average rate was only 16%, showing that these players improved their ability by four times. They expected results similar to this, but not to this degree. This is even more amazing given the fact that players in their twenties, from the first study, had an average score of 36%.
Among these older test subjects, those that performed one task or the other did not get the same rewards as those that multi-tasked. This led the team to conclude that by exercising a person’s cognitive ability, they could increase their performance.
To provide further proof of their finding, the subjects were connected to electrodes that monitored neural activity. When comparing this activity in subjects during the start of the month to their activity at the end of the month, there was a significant increase in neural activity by the end of the study.
Six months after the study, the participants of the second study were asked back to perform the NeuroRacer test again. They averaged a score of 21%, showing that they were able to retain some of the improvement, even after months of not training their brain.
While we still do not know how much of a benefit these types of games would be for younger people, it is obvious that older people can improve their brain’s ability to multi-task. So, before you start writing video games off as a form of exercise, remember this study.