This is your brain on games: How to have fun while staying sharp and fighting memory loss

78650997_2999094_300_2121_1414_C_R_jpgBy Steve Guntli

One of the most frightening things about growing old is the prospect that your brain won’t always be as sharp as it once was. While a certain degree of memory loss is inevitable, research has shown that there are ways to combat the effects of aging on the brain.

Luckily, one of the most reliable methods is also one of the most fun: games.  While board games and bingo have been popular in nursing homes and senior centers for years, new electronic games designed to help cognitive function may be most helpful.

In early 2014, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a report on the largest-ever study done on memory training. Spanning more than a decade and using more than 3,000 subjects, the study began by subjecting participants, all of them of normal brain capacity and with an average age of 74, to a series of brain-training games and exercises. The study found that a even a brief course of brain training games helped senior citizens retain reasoning skills and processing speeds more than a decade later.

Certain games are effective at preserving the brain in the same way exercise is good for preserving the body. Using one’s brain on engaging or challenging activities stimulates blood flow and fights decline.

Video games

Often dismissed as mindless children’s entertainment, video games are proving to be increasingly popular among the senior set. According to a 2013 poll in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior,” nearly one-third of seniors polled said they play digital games at least once a week. Most say they stick with card and puzzle games like solitaire or minesweeper, while others enjoy more physical games like “Wii Sports Bowling.”

That same study also found that gaming seniors displayed better everyday functionality than non-gamers.

Many games are now designed with cognitive benefits in mind. Brain-training games like Nintendo’s “Brain Age” series can help hone cognitive abilities, while adventure games like “Legend of Zelda” and “World of Warcraft,” which put an emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving, have been shown to improve the areas of the brain responsible for memory, spatial reasoning and attention span. In fact, a 2013 study from UC San Francisco found that after only four weeks of video game training, adult subjects had vastly improved brain plasticity, which governs the brain’s ability to change functionally over time.

There was also a marked improvement in multitasking ability, and while playing, brain wave activity in 70-year-old participants were similar to those in another group of 30-year-olds.

Video games are giving patients with severe dementia another shot, as well. Australian researchers are working on The Forest Project, a virtual reality game that simulates soothing outdoor environments with interactive elements. If the project receives enough funding, it will be compatible with the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality device that’s expected to hit the market early next year.

Crossword puzzles and Sudoku

While electronic games are making great strides towards being more accessible to a wider audience, many seniors don’t want to invest the time into mastering the learning curve of a computer game. Fortunately, some time-honored classics have documented therapeutic benefits, as well.

A study found that seniors who have completed crossword puzzles or Sudoku games regularly throughout their life were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Even patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia have shown increased brain activity when trying to solve a puzzle. The biggest benefit of crosswords or Sudoku is their ubiquity: you can find crossword puzzles in every gas station, free online or in any newspaper (including this one).

Regardless of the method, keeping your brain engaged and active is as crucial as any physical exercise, and can contribute to a longer, happier life.

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