Can Games, Puzzles Keep Aging Minds Sharp?
New study says maybe, but the reason why isn't yet clear
By Amy Norton
MONDAY, July 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Older adults who enjoy mentally stimulating games may have bigger brains and sharper thinking skills than their peers, new research suggests.
The study looked at the connection between playing games such as puzzles, crosswords, cards and checkers and mental acuity for adults in their 50s and 60s.
Researchers found that people who played those games at least every other day performed better on tests of memory and other mental functions. And, based on MRI scans, they had greater tissue mass in brain areas involved in memory.
However, the chicken-or-egg question remains, said lead researcher Stephanie Schultz.
"The cause-and-effect here is unclear," said Schultz, a research specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Dean Hartley, director of science initiatives for the Alzheimer's Association, agreed. "We don't know whether crosswords and puzzles will stave off dementia," he noted.
But, he said, the results fit in with a body of research suggesting that mental "exercise" might help delay the onset of dementia in some people.
Alzheimer's is marked by the buildup of abnormal protein deposits in the brain known as plaques and tangles. But researchers know that some people are able to keep up their day-to-day functioning despite those brain changes.
One theory, Hartley explained, is that people who are more educated, or engage in mentally stimulating activities, have a bigger "cognitive reserve" to draw upon when Alzheimer's-related brain changes begin.
If mental exercise is beneficial, is there something special about games -- as opposed to reading a good book? Hartley said it's possible: Games not only stimulate the mind, but can keep older adults socially active as well, he noted.
Schultz agreed. "Our findings suggest that cognitively stimulating activities -- games, in particular -- may be beneficial," she said. "Whether that's due to the cognitive stimulation or the social aspect, or both, is a good question."
The findings are based on 329 older adults who were free of dementia, but at increased risk of Alzheimer's. Three quarters of the study volunteers had a strong family history of Alzheimer's disease. Forty percent had a gene that's linked to the disease.