Grandad Beat My High Score

It’s not just little ‘uns that are better at understanding how computers, tablets and smartphones work, the elderly are also showing off their skills as gamers. But is playing computer games as a past-time really that beneficial?

After I finished university (first time around) I got a job in a residential home for the elderly. It was the most challenging yet rewarding job I’ve ever had. But one thing that will always haunt me was how brain draining this place was. Those of you who have worked in similar places will know what I mean. Like our bodies, our brains need a daily workout and this is what is so appealing about these computer brain training games.

Computer games and mobile games are quickly becoming the new favourite past time, particularly among the elderly community. Naturally this phenomenon caught the attention of psychologists and neuroscientists as they noticed a trend between playing computer games and cognitive degeneration, or lack there of. As they dug deeper they found that some of these computer games improved certain cognitive functions such as attention span and focus. Since then computer games that train your brain are everywhere from simple arithmetic calculation games to complex logic puzzle games all designed to engage your cognitive processes.

Instead of writing about one article I decided to write about a meta-analysis on computer-based cognitive programmes conducted by Schao and colleagues (2015). FYI, a meta-analysis is an analysis done on many studies researching the same question. The benefit being that, unlike a review, a meta-analysis quantifies the data from all the included studies and gives you a much more accurate picture of what’s going on. In this case, what are the effects of computer brain training games on your cognitive functions?  (You can find out more about meta-analyses on my previous blog post.)

So what did this meta-analysis find?

Well, it found that these computer games increase memory performance, i.e. they improve your ability to retain, store and recall information (major plus points), and these games can help you process information faster (more major plus points). Also, the memory performance improvements were still showing 3 months after the initial assessment (exploding plus points).

They went on to say that these improvements could be linked to plasticity; the structural and functional changes that happen in our brain when we learn. If this is true, playing computer games could slow cognitive decline as well as improve specific cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, language and so on. This video on Neuroplasticity by Sentis gives a good overview of what plasticity is.

Now whenever researchers say the word “could” it usually means they’re speculating. But this is not a bad thing because it gives a good direction for further research. And in this case it could be that these types of computer games help people with neurological diseases by not only exercising specific damaged areas of the brain, but also help those areas recover.

Does this mean that computer games can cure Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

For Dementia, it’s possible. For Alzheimer’s, it’s likely going to take more than computer brain training games. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are quite different physiologically, so computer games that help people with Dementia will not necessarily help people with Alzheimer’s disease. One shoe won’t fit all…

Having said that there are labs all around the world trying to figure this out, and for once it’s pretty easy to get the data. For starters, testing these games is convenient and cost-effective. These games are played on PCs, tablets, even smartphones, and the data is collected remotely without the need to schedule lab sessions for participants. It’s also possible to set up personalised training without a trainer. These games can also be played for months on end, which means data can be collected over an extensive period of time.

All-in-all, it’s important to keep our brain fit and healthy. So why not give these games a go and see if you can beat the scores of your local elderly community.

Written by Alison Holland

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Shao, Y. K., Mang, J., Li, P. L., Wang, J., Deng, T., & Xu, Z. X. (2015). Computer-Based Cognitive Programs for Improvement of Memory, Processing Speed and Executive Function during Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Meta-Analysis. PloS one10(6), e0130831.