No, Really, This Video Game Is Making Me Smarter

Man using laptop

Courtesy Newtown grafitti – Flickr photostream

Which do you think keeps your brain sharper – completing a leisurely crossword puzzle on the computer or playing a fast-paced computer video game that requires you to match fleeting images?

Sorry, crossword puzzlers, but the quick-thinking skills needed to play a video game could help slow age-related cognitive decline, a new study finds.

Researchers from the University of Iowa tested 681 healthy adults over age 50 who were assigned to play either a video game called “Road Tour” (since renamed “Double Decision”) or to complete a computerized crossword puzzle. (The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.)

The game is designed to improve the speed and accuracy of mental processing skills. Players must find matching road signs among a series of constantly changing images. The more you play, the less time you’re given to complete the matches.

The game group was required to play 10 hours total over the course of five weeks, either in the lab or at home. In addition, part of the group was given four hours of booster training 11 months after the study ended. All participants were given cognitive tests at the end of the study and a year later.

The result, researchers found, was that the game-players showed “small to medium size” improvements in their cognitive skills, compared with the puzzle people. Playing the video game seemed to give participants more protection against declines in memory and other functions, such as planning and reasoning.

On average, the game players’ minds were three years “younger,” researchers said, and those who got the extra booster training showed even more improvement.

Plus, researchers found that the game training worked equally well in both middle-aged participants (ages 50 to 64) and those 65 or older.

“The bad news about brain plasticity is that … we start slowing down in our early 30s, and it continues. The good news is, with the right kind of training programs, we can regain what we’ve lost and maybe get people to higher levels,” study author Fredric Wolinsky, Ph.D., professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, told HealthDay News.

Compared with the crossword group, the gamers scored higher on tests of concentration, and were able to switch between different tasks and process new information more quickly – abilities that could help older adults with everyday skills, including driving and avoiding accidents, researchers wrote.

“We know that we can stop this decline and actually restore cognitive processing speed to people,” Wolinsky said in a statement. “So, if we know that, shouldn’t we be helping people? It’s fairly easy, and anyone can go get the training game and play it.”

The study was published May 1 in the journal PLOS One.

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