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Games for Brain Health — Novelty, Variety and Challenge

Land­mark study just pub­lished: Basak C, et al “Can train­ing in a real-time strat­egy video game atten­u­ate cog­ni­tive decline in older adults?” Psy­chol Aging 2008; DOI: 10.1037/a0013494.

Play­ing com­puter games improves brain power of older adults, claim sci­en­tists (Telegraph)

- The team at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois recruited 40 adults over 60 years old, half of whom were asked to play a com­puter game called Rise of Nations, a role-playing game in which you have to build your own empire.

- Game play­ers have to build cities, feed and employ their peo­ple, main­tain an ade­quate mil­i­tary and expand their territory.

- Both groups were assessed before, dur­ing and after the video game train­ing on a vari­ety of tests.

- As a group, the “gamers” became sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter – and faster – at switch­ing between tasks as com­pared to the com­par­i­son group. Their work­ing mem­ory, as reflected in the tests, was also sig­nif­i­cantly improved and their rea­son­ing abil­ity was enhanced.

- (Pro­fes­sor Art Kramer, an author of the study pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­chol­ogy & Aging) “This is one mode in which older peo­ple can stay men­tally fit, cog­ni­tively fit. I’m not sug­gest­ing, how­ever, that it’s the only thing they should do.”

Pro­fes­sor Kramer and I dis­cussed this study last June dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion on Why We Need Walk­ing Book Clubs:

Ques­tion (me): Tell us more about your work with cog­ni­tive train­ing for older adults.

Answer (Prof Kramer): We have now a study in press where we eval­u­ate the effect of a com­mer­cially avail­able strat­egy videogame on older adults’ cognition.

Let me first give some con­text. It seems clear that, as we age, our so-called crys­tal­lized abil­i­ties remain pretty sta­ble, whereas the so-called fluid abil­i­ties decline. One par­tic­u­lar set of fluid abil­i­ties are called exec­u­tive func­tions, which deal with exec­u­tive con­trol, plan­ning, deal­ing with ambi­gu­ity, pri­or­i­tiz­ing, multi-tasking. These skills are cru­cial to main­tain inde­pen­dent living.

In this study, we exam­ined whether play­ing strategy-based video game can train those exec­u­tive func­tions and improve them. We showed that play­ing a strategy-based videogame (Rise of Nations Gold Edi­tion) can result in not only becom­ing a bet­ter videogame player but it trans­ferred to untrained exec­u­tive func­tions. We saw a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in task switch­ing, work­ing mem­ory, visual short-term mem­ory, and men­tal rota­tion. And some, but more lim­ited, ben­e­fits in inhi­bi­tion and reasoning.

I can share a few details on the study: the aver­age age was 69 years, and the exper­i­ment required around 23 hours of train­ing time. We only included indi­vid­u­als who had played videogames 0 hours/ week for the last 2 years.

That last cri­te­ria is inter­est­ing. We typ­i­cally say that good “brain exer­cise” requires nov­elty, vari­ety and chal­lenge. So, if you take adults who are 69-years-old and haven’t played a videogame in 2 years, how do you know if the ben­e­fit comes from the par­tic­u­lar videogame they played vs. just the value of deal­ing with a new and com­plex task?

That’s a great ques­tion. The real­ity is that we don’t know, since we had a “wait­ing list” con­trol group. In the future per­haps we should com­pare dif­fer­ent videogames or other men­tally stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties against each other and see what method is the most effi­cient. Per­haps the National Insti­tutes on Health may be inter­ested in fund­ing such research.

In any case, your study rein­forces an impor­tant point: older brains can, and do, learn new skills.

Yes. The rate of learn­ing by older adults may be slower, and they may ben­e­fit from more explicit instruc­tion and tech­nol­ogy train­ing, but, as a soci­ety, it is a mas­sive waste of tal­ent not to ensure older adults remain active and productive.

Full inter­view: Arthur Kramer on Why We Need Walk­ing Book Clubs

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