THURSDAY, Dec. 11, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Older people who want to stay sharp should reconsider the notion that video games are only for lazy children and pick up a joystick themselves, a new study suggests.
While past studies have shown that playing video games has many positive benefits, ranging from improved problem-solving abilities in young people to improved operating skills in surgeons, the study in the December issue of Psychology and Aging went one step further. The research, which was not funded by the gaming industry, is the first to indicate that playing complex video games after receiving training may improve the cognitive functions that typically decline with age.
The researchers tested the cognitive abilities of 40 people in their 60s and 70s before and after playing the video game "Rise of Nations," which rewards the complex task of creating a society, including building cities, employing people and expanding territory.
Half of the group received training before playing the game while the other half served as a comparison group and received no training.
Testing showed that people in the trained group performed better not only on the game but also on tests of memory, reasoning and the ability to identify rotated objects compared to those who were not trained. The results may eventually help older people who are struggling with managing tasks they once found to be simple.
"Juggling multiple tasks such as cooking, answering the door, and talking on the phone might be simple for a young person, while an older person might feel overwhelmed and burn their food," said study author Chandramallika Basak, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois. "These are the kind of things that older people do in their everyday lives, so if you're not very good at juggling different tasks it does impact your lifestyle."
The study offers welcome news for America's aging baby boomer population. The whole concept that the older brain in aging individuals can improve is really important right now, said Paul Sanberg, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Aging and Brain Repair. "The interesting thing is that less than 24 hours of training not only improved mental and cognitive functions, but also enhanced their ability to function in some other tasks," he said.
Researchers cautioned that questions remain about whether people with better cognitive abilities are naturally attracted to video games and other complex tasks, or whether the act of playing the video games boosted cognitive ability.
"Perhaps the brains of people who enjoy video games are very different than somebody who doesn't want that challenge," suggested Basak. "At this point, it's pure speculation."
"This would be a good type of experiment to combine with brain-imaging studies to see the effect of the training on these people, and whether there's increased activity in the brain and new connections," said Sanberg. "It's also nice to see if there's some correlation with actual brain function."
While a growing number of studies have found that playing video games can be beneficial, experts warn against too much of a good thing, noting that playing video games can be an isolating experience that mitigates other health benefits.
"Clearly mental exercises, whether through a game or another media outlet, aren't that bad, but you want to establish societal connections as well," cautioned Sanberg. "Doing too much of one thing might not be the best idea."
Basak suggests that playing strategy-based games such as chess or video games with other people might offer a way to achieve the same benefits without sacrificing social interaction.
"When we look at improvements in cognition, it's not just one thing that's affecting, it's all integrative," said Basak. "There are many factors that go into it."
You can find more about aging and the brain at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.