Jennifer Wagner, 52, a blogger in New York City, is addicted to playing games like Wurdle, Bejeweled, and Cup O’ Joe on her iPhone. She discovered them when her husband and college-age sons talked non-stop about gaming apps after getting the iPhone in December 2008.
“They make me think,” she says, “and I find that relaxing. Because I’m concentrating on the game, my mind is cleared of everything else, which rarely happens, so I love that feeling.”
Like Wagner, many boomers have caught the bug, buying and downloading games in droves, often competing against players half their age. A customer survey conducted by PopCap Games, the maker of Bejeweled and other online games with an estimated 150 million consumers, found that 71% of its players are older than 40, 47% are older than 50, and 76% are women.
Recent research has shown a link between playing a complex strategy game like Rise of Nations and improved memory and cognitive skills. Other studies have demonstrated that older brains can focus better when properly trained using games. So the results suggest that players may be getting a bigger payoff than just mastering the game.
Some games like Brain Age and Happy Neuron claim to provide a mental workout by improving memory, quick thinking, and visual recognition skills. Others like Guitar Hero and Rock Band sell the physical and fun aspects for everyone, regardless of age. The Beatles: Rock Band game, which comes out Sept. 9, is betting on its nostalgic appeal for boomers and seniors.
The Real Benefits of Games
Playing certain video games can help improve split-second decision making, hand-eye coordination, and, in some cases, auditory perception, says Ezriel Kornel, MD, of Brain and Spine Surgeons of New York in Westchester County. “It’s actually a very complex set of tasks that your brain is going through.”
It’s not enough, though, to just pick up a game and play it for a few minutes, Kornel tells WebMD. You have to actually improve at it -- and to improve you have to be learning.
“Anytime the brain is in learning mode,” Kornel says, “there are new synapses forming between the neurons. So you’re creating thousands of connections that can then be applied to other tasks as well.”
The brain-boosting benefits depend on the type of game, says Anne McLaughlin, PhD, psychologist at North Carolina State University. “They’ve tried games that didn’t work,” she says. “For example, you might think that people learn to rotate things really well by playing Tetris. But studies didn’t find much of an effect. So you got better at Tetris, but you didn’t get better at parking your car.”
Existing research shows that novelty is a catalyst for learning, McLaughlin says. “If you’ve done Sudoku your whole life, you’re not doing anything new,” she says. “Completely new tasks form new pathways in your brain. So it seems more likely that something challenging and new would be a lot more effective than something that’s challenging but you’ve been doing it forever.”
With a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, her research team is examining what types of games might help slow the effects of aging on the brain. The four-year study will look at the benefits that may transfer from solving puzzles in the game universe to the daily grind of the real world.
Stress Relief and Social Time
TerryAnn Holzgrafe, 45, a teacher of disabled students in Rio Rico, Ariz., plays the spelling game Bookworm Adventures both for fun and as a teaching tool in her classroom. She also formed a Bookworm Adventures’ ladies club, a group of 40-something women who gather at a local coffeehouse to discuss game strategies.
“These games have the unusual ability to de-stress as well as engage one’s brain,” she says. “I play them to relax at various points during the day, and I play them very late at night when I’m having trouble sleeping.”
There’s a real value at the emotional level, says Kornel, who enjoys Guitar Hero. “Reducing stress can help with clarity of thought,” he says.
Michael Caputo, 47, owner of an advertising agency in the North Quabbin Region of Massachusetts, gets a kick out of playing Rock Band with his kids and appreciates the ribbing that goes along with the intergenerational entertainment. “Rock Band has music I like and music they like. They deal with me singing ‘Green Grass’ and ‘High Times’ and I deal with them singing ‘Dani California,’” he says.
He also enjoys playing HALO, a best-selling sci-fi game on Xbox, into the wee hours of the morning and admits he is one of the older players. Six years ago, he started playing HALO2 with a group of guys he knew from church and their sons.
Although Caputo is a fan of socializing through games, he says he isn’t aware of any health benefits. “I suppose you would equate it with any anticipated fun event that you look forward to and have positive memories immediately following,” he says.
Slowing the Aging Process
Retirement homes across the country have added Wii nights with tennis, bowling, and other sports to their rotation of activities. The Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute in New Jersey is currently using Wii games to help stroke and other rehab patients with recovering motor function.
What about toying with games to prevent memory loss? Unfortunately, playing games can’t ward off disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia, Kornel says, but you may be able to slow the progression of the symptoms to some extent.
“Older people have to feel like what they are doing is doing something,” McLaughlin says. “They might want to stay away from video games because they would be a waste of time. But if it has a purpose, then it might be more worthwhile.”
So even though the verdict is out on whether video games are the new fountain of youth, there’s nothing stopping you from joining in the fun -- and hey, you might even feel rejuvenated!