Digital puzzle games help older adults have the memory of a 20-year-old!

YORK, United Kingdom — Puzzles have an age-old connection to keeping a person’s mind sharp. Now, new research finds even digital brain games can help sustain strong memory well into old age. Could this mean that video games are actually beneficial for children of all ages? Scientists at the University of York discovered that older adults who habitually play digital puzzle games tend to have the same memory abilities as people in their 20s.

This project also found that adults 60 and over who play digital puzzle games were better able to ignore irrelevant distractions. Notably, older individuals who played strategy games instead did not show the same improvements in either memory or concentration.

It’s a fact of life that a person’s mental faculties tend to decline as they grow older, especially the ability to remember multiple things at the same time, technically referred to as working memory. This variety of memory is believed to peak between the ages of 20 and 30, before slowly declining as the years pass.

Prior research, however, has indicated that the way we hold information in the brain also changes as we grow older. So, the research team set out to assess whether the impacts of particular types of mental stimulation, such as gaming, also offer altered effects depending on age.

“A lot of research has focused on action games, as it is thought that reacting quickly, keeping track of targets and so on helps attention and memory, but our new analysis shows that the action elements do not seem to offer significant benefits to younger adults,” says Dr. Fiona McNab, from York’s Department of Psychology, in a university release.

“It instead seems to be the strategy elements of the games – planning and problem solving for example –  that stimulates better memory and attention in young people.  We don’t see this same effect in older adults, however, and more research is needed to understand why this is.  We can’t yet rule out that the strategy games played by older people are not as difficult as the games played by younger people and that the level of challenge might be important in memory improvement.”

older man on smartphone in front of laptop
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This study encompassed both older and younger adults playing digital games that they would normally play in their “real lives.” This approach resulted in a wide range of games being tested alongside a digital experiment requiring participants to memorize images amid a series of distractions.

“Generally people have a good ability to ignore irrelevant distractions, something we call ‘encoding distraction’. We would expect for example that a person could memorize the name of a street whilst being distracted by a child or a dog, but this ability does decline as we age,” explains Dr. Joe Cutting, from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science.

Puzzle games for older people had this surprising ability to support mental capabilities to the extent that memory and concentration levels were the same as a 20 year-olds who had not played puzzle games.”

It’s worth noting, though, that older individuals were more likely to forget elements committed to memory while being distracted if they only played strategy games. Young people, on the other hand, were less successful at focusing their attention if they played only puzzle games.

In conclusion, study authors say future research could focus on why there is a difference between the impacts of types of games depending on player ages, as well as if this is connected to how the brain stores information as individuals age.

The study is published in the journal Heliyon.

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