Video Games and Cognitive Health

Since the first home video game console reached markets in 1972, opinions on the devices have been in constant change.  Home game consoles began as expensive novelties in the 70’s and 80’s, lightning rods of controversy in the 90’s, and near-ubiquitous living room fixtures since 2000.

Now, a growing body of research points to a new role for video games as accessible, cognitively-healthy mental exercise for older adults.

Modern Gaming and Older Adults

In 2016, AARP found more than 40 million adults 50 and older played video games once a month, making up at least 15 percent of the US gaming public.  Following the COVID-19 pandemic, AARP found that an additional 12.4 million older adults now report regular video game usage, and gamers aged 55 and older now make up more than 24 percent of the gaming population.  Man playing video games

So why are more older adults picking up controllers?

While part of this growing trend can be attributed to older adults who have a baseline familiarity with video games due to a younger family member having a console in the home, there are larger industry-centered causes at the heart of this shift.

As the medium has grown, many game makers have moved away from an arcade design mindset, where skill challenges present hard stops to in-game progress. This move towards a more casual gameplay approach makes picking up the hobby far more approachable to new users.

Additionally, video games have never been more accessible.  Many console makers have stepped away from complicated controllers to simpler, easier-to-manage designs – in some cases doing away with button-based controllers for motion and touch pad-based controls with far flatter learning curves.

Finally, games themselves have become easier to access, with almost any smart device from phones to tablets readily offering a large library of games for any level of experience.

Linking Video Games and Cognitive Health

While some game makers produce “brain training” games that encourage players to tackle various puzzles, research now suggests that playing any type of interactive game may offer significant benefits for cognitive health.

A 2017 peer-reviewed study took a population of 55 to 75-year-olds and assigned each member one of three tasks – playing an off-the-shelf 3D platforming game, self-learning the piano through an online course, or continuing with their normal daily activity.

After six months, each participant underwent an MRI to evaluate changes in their brain structure, and the findings were striking.  The group tasked with playing video games had significantly more gray matter (the connective tissues of the brain critical to cognitive function) than the group learning piano, while the control group showed decreased levels of gray matter.

Additionally, researchers suggest that different types of games can contribute to different cognitive benefits.  A peer-reviewed survey of past experiments conducted in 2009 suggests that different genres of games and gameplay types might benefit different cognitive processes, ranging from hand-eye coordination and reflexes to spatial awareness, reasoning, short and long-term memory, and logical reasoning.

While the subject of video games and possible cognitive benefits among older adults still require more thorough study, researchers have found that study subjects are far more likely to participate in video game “brain training” if given access to a game they enjoy.

Curious about the cognitive benefits of video games for yourself or a loved one, but unsure where to get started?  Stay tuned to this blog, where we will publish a follow-up guide for brain-healthy video games and a quick-start guide to make taking up this brain-healthy hobby a snap.

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