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Video Gaming Just Might Fight Aging

Experts find physical and mental benefits as people grow old

FRIDAY, Jan. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Slaying orcs, charting military campaigns and gunning down bad guys might not sound like things seniors would be interested in pursuing for fun or exercise.

But they might want to start, some experts on aging say.

Research has found that off-the-shelf video games have the potential to help seniors age more gracefully, keeping their minds sharp and responsive through game play.

"There's a growing body of evidence that suggests playing video games actually can improve older adults' reflexes, processing speed, memory, attention skills and spatial abilities," said Jason Allaire, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-director of its Gains Through Gaming Lab.

With the advent of the Nintendo Wii, there's even the potential that video games could provide seniors with an outlet for physical exercise.

The Wii uses special controllers that require arm and body movements, and a number of games have been developed for the system specifically to provide an exercise program.

One study found that a Wii bowling game boosted the heart rate of players at a senior center in Pensacola, Fla., by about 40 percent. The game required that the players, who were in their 60s, 70s and 80s, hold the controller like a bowling ball and swing it to hit the pins in a virtual bowling alley.

"The Wii is a perfect vehicle because it is so easy," Allaire said. "It's in a lot of senior centers already. Older adults already tend to use it."

The potential of video games to keep minds sharp was highlighted in a 2008 study in which 40 people in their 60s and 70s were asked to play Rise of Nations, a real-time strategy game for computers that can be found in many stores that sell video games.

"We wanted to see whether we could take an off-the-shelf game and see fairly substantial changes," said Art Kramer, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who participated in the study.

Researchers measured the cognitive abilities of the players, none of whom had played any video games for at least two years. They then had half the group play Rise of Nations for nearly 24 hours total over an eight-week period.

Follow-up tests found that the seniors who played the strategy video game improved their performance on tests of memory, reasoning and cognition. There were particular improvements, Kramer said, in what's called executive control processes -- abilities such as planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity and multi-tasking.

"As we get older, we show declines in many of those abilities," he said. "As a result of doing certain things, we end up doing them less often. The kinds of processes that were exercised in the video game were some of the processes that older adults show deficits on."

Allaire is part of a team that has been given a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to do further research on whether and how video games can boost memory and thinking skills in the elderly.

The researchers plan to have seniors play a Wii game called Boom Blox that involves using weapons such as slingshots and cannonballs to demolish on-screen targets. The research will also involve World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game, Allaire said.

The plan is to assess three aspects of video game-playing that are thought to drive cognitive improvements in older people, Allaire said. They are:

  • Attentional demand. "You have to pay attention to what's going on on the screen and react quickly," he said. "The more attention you expend on the video game, the better you get at focusing your attention."
  • Novelty. "There's a lot of research that, when we're put in novel situations or are learning novel things, it activates our brains," he said.
  • Social interaction. "People who stay more socially engaged have more cognitive function," he said. "We think people will interact with each other through collaborating and playing the game."

Though the research efforts show the possibilities of using video games to help aging adults, Allaire noted that no studies have shown a transfer of video-game skills to real-world activities.

"Is it going to help you remember to take your medications, or to remember what you wanted to buy at the store?" he asked. "That really hasn't been proven."

Kramer said that seniors should consider video games one of a number of things they can do to keep themselves sharp.

"I would not suggest that video games would be the only or even the best way to exercise those cognitive functions," he said, noting that physical exercise, social interaction and diet are already proven ways to promote mental abilities as you get older. "I would recommend they get out and ride a bike. I would recommend they learn a new language."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on healthy aging.

SOURCES: Jason Allaire, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, and co-director, Gains Through Gaming Lab, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.; Art Kramer, Ph.D., professor, neuroscience and psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Ill.; presentation, American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, May 27-30, 2009, Seattle

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