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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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