Playing Computer Games to Boost Aging Brains
Dec. 11, 2014 -- For more than 2 years, Jeanne Roach found a seat at an open computer terminal in the e-café at the Villa Gardens retirement community in Pasadena, CA, and she did a “20-minute circuit workout” for her brain.
“You look at a series of pictures, then the pictures are removed, and you’re asked, ‘In which picture were the men wearing hats?’” says Roach, 88, a retired human resources specialist. “There are math problems – what we used to call ‘story problems’ when I was growing up. I happened to do pretty well with the word games, but not well with the math.”
The challenges, according to game-maker Dakim BrainFitness, are meant to exercise six mental skills: long-term memory, short-term memory, language, computation, critical thinking, and the perception of spatial relationships between objects (called visuospatial ability).
Dakim is one program in the estimated billion-dollar-plus industry known as computer-based brain training. Lumosity, perhaps the best known in the industry, boasts 50 million users. Some play for free. Others buy unlimited monthly or annual access for $15 per month or $60 per year. Lumosity and its many competitors promise to preserve or improve memory, among other mental skills, and prevent or delay mental decline and even dementia.
But can a video game deliver all of that?
Probably not yet, says Sandra Chapman, PhD. She's chief director of The Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. Brain-training games are popular for the same reason as diet pills, she suspects. They seem like a quick fix.
Computer-Based Training Vs. Other Activities
While research shows that people who play the games get better at them -- and may even stay better at them long after they stop practicing -- it’s harder to tell whether gamers function better in other aspects of life.
One study followed nearly 3,000 elderly adults for 10 years. Those who completed computer-based cognitive training reported less trouble carrying out the activities of everyday living than those who didn't. But, critics argue, it’s common for study participants to think a treatment helped them whether it did or not. Roach felt that way, too.