Good news for gamers of all ages: Research has shown that certain types of games are good for your brain! Canadian researchers have found playing 3D-platform games involving logic and puzzles can build the hippocampus, the part of the brain which controls memory. A couple of previous studies had shown that these types of games actually increase grey matter in participants in their 20s so the researchers wanted to see whether it would work for older people.
They divided participants aged between 55 and 75 into three separate groups who were instructed to play the Nintendo game Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five times a week; take piano lessons (for the first time in their life) for the same amount of time; or do nothing over a six month period. Before-and-after MRI scans and cognitive performance tests showed the gamers had increased grey matter in the hippocampus and the cerebellum, which affects motor control and balance, while their short-term memory also improved. The piano players also benefitted, but didn’t have any gains in the hippocampus, while the passive control group actually showed signs of atrophy.
The researchers say 3D platform games are good because they ask people to explore and memorise a new environment, which activates the hippocampus. This is important as the decline of grey brain matter in the hippocampus is linked with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Other gaming types that use physical activity for gaming, such as the Ninetendo Wii or the Microsoft Xbox Kinect also can help boost brain functioning in people with neurological impairment. Researchers at the University of Manchester found these types of games also helped with keeping their minds healthy and active.
Strategy video games also have shown promise in improving brain function among older adults and may provide protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
What is the future?
This technology could be utilized in many ways by those delivering care to older people. It could be used to increase movement, stimulation and activity by getting residents to participate in different activities in different “worlds”. VR has also been used as a therapy to help those who have mental health issues. There are over 100 clinical research papers that are already published that show proven positive clinical outcomes using VR in managing chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
How do we get older people using this technology?
While this research is great – how many older people do you know that use gaming devices?
There are multiple barriers that limit older people’s access the benefits of this technology. There is a perception that older people cannot play these games. This perception is a result of conscious and unconscious ageist attitudes as well as marketing campaigns targeted only to younger people, therefore unconsciously discouraging older people from buying and using their products.
The cost and the limitations of how many people can use the device at one time (VR in particular) are both barriers to get people using this technology. This is especially true in a aged care residential facility. Mobility is also an issue as those with arthritis may find it difficult to use the controllers etc.
As the technology becomes more common, the price (in theory) should drop so that it becomes more affordable. Donating older devices that still work to retirement facilities also allows people to have a go. Donating your time to show older people how to use the devices is equally as important. The US Pew Internet research centre found that 77% of older people felt they would need someone to help walk them through the process of setting up a new device.
But even if you don’t want to pick up the controller, the scientists say that simply learning something new can make a big difference to your brain health as you age.