Can Video Games Improve Memory and Prevent Cognitive Decay?

Written by Philip Hargrove

The risk of reduced cognitive function and poor memory increases as one ages. Often, the culprit behind this is the development of neurodegenerative disease (e.g., dementia).

Regular physical activity was long viewed as the primary form of prevention of these conditions. However, recent research suggests that mental exercise is just as important.

Playing video games has shown potential in slowing or preventing cognitive decline. Ever since this discovery, computer, smartphone, and tablet-based games have been gaining popularity with the senior demographic.

· The impact of aging on brain function

The aging process is inextricably linked with some mental decline. As we age, the numbers of neural synapses in the brain decrease. The latter is imperative to cognitive function and memory.

Also, neuro-degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are more prevalent with the elderly. These diseases may cause debilitating mental decline among seniors.

The good news is that lifestyle changes and adjustments can combat some of the cognitive decline. Getting enough sleep, drinking less alcohol, and staying physically active are a few examples.

Aside from this, stimulating the mind is of paramount importance too. Some beneficial mental challenges include learning a new language or a skill, pursuing education, and playing some types of video games.

· Studies Reach Various Conclusions

Several prominent universities have researched the relationship between video games and cognitive function in the past few years. The conclusions vary, but overall, it seems that they are in favor of games.

A Canadian study done by the University of Montreal recruited 33 individuals aged 55 to 75. The test group was then separated into three smaller groups.

One group was asked to play Super Mario 64 five days a week, another to practice piano, and the last one wasn’t given any task. After six months, the participants underwent an MRI scan.

The researchers concluded that only the group participants who played Super Mario had an increase in grey matter volume. Also, they reported improvements in their short-term memory.

It’s vital to point out that Super Mario 64 is a 3D game. When playing it, the brain creates a mental representation of the map that it’s exploring in the game. This kind of stimulation increases functional activity as well as grey matter in the hippocampus.

A systematic study from 2012 suggests that video games enhance reaction time, processing speed, and overall cognition in older adults (55 years old on average).

The improvements of all three mentioned parameters were consistent across most of the reviewed studies. However, the results on two other tested parameters – memory and executive function – varied. In other words, older adults who played games didn’t experience significant improvements in these two aspects of cognition.

This implies that video games may not be effective in enhancing memory. In the end, this systematic study concluded that more research needs to be done on the subject.

· Games that yield the most benefits

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 25% of people over 50 regularly play video games. And yes, the percentage is on the rise.

As video games are becoming increasingly popular among the older adult population, the market is getting flooded with new releases. This oversupply makes it challenging to decide which games to go for.

You don’t want to play just any game, but those that produce the most cognitive benefits.

Here are a few guidelines on what to look for:

· Games that teach you new information

Our brain’s storage capacity is practically unlimited. Learning new information can strengthen and expand the existing neural pathways.

If you’re a history buff, look for a game that can further enrich your knowledge. There are even games that can teach you a language or a skill like programming.

Of course, you can indulge in “brain resting” classics like Solitaire or puzzles, but don’t make them the bulk of your playing time.

· 3D games

As explained previously, video games with 3D graphics challenge the brain in a beneficial way. Think of it as exploring new territory and thus acquiring new information.

World of Warcraft, a popular multiplayer online game, has been said to boost cognitive ability. This discovery was made in 2012 by researchers from North Carolina University.

The game didn’t help all seniors who participated in the study, though. It only helped those who performed poorly on cognitive ability tests before playing it.

· Consoles that make you move your body

Gaming consoles such as Nintendo Wii engage the player physically and mentally. Since both are important for cognitive function, think of it as killing two birds with one stone. They may aid seniors in improving coordination, balance, and reflexes.

Final thoughts

Based on the available data, it appears that video games can be useful in warding off cognitive decay in aging individuals. However, many of the studies that deal with this subject matter are incomplete. More research is definitely needed with larger samples.

Instead of solely relying on video games for improving cognitive function and memory, one should enjoy them interchangeably with other activities.