Older people who play brain games have the same memory abilities as people in their 20s, according to a study published in the journal Heliyon. The study also found that they could ignore irrelevant distractions, but older adults who engaged in strategy games did not see the same improvements.
As we age, our mental abilities tend to decrease, especially the ability to remember multiple things over a short period of time — this is called working memory. This type of memory peaks between the ages of 2 and 30 and slowly starts to decline as we age.
Now, a team of researchers from the University of York, UK, wanted to assess whether the impacts of particular types of mental stimulation — such as games — could slow down or even revert these changes.
“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,” said Dr. Fiona McNab, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology. “It instead seems to be the strategy elements of the games – planning and problem-solving, for example – that stimulate 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.”
The study looked at older and younger adults playing digital games and other brain-challenging activities, such as memorising images, whilst being distracted. “Generally, people have a good ability to ignore irrelevant distractions, something we call ‘encoding distraction.’ We would expect, for example, that a person could memorise the name of a street whilst being distracted by a child or a dog, but this ability does decline as we age,” said 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.”
In this study, older people were more likely to forget items whilst being distracted if they only played strategy games, whereas those who played memory games could retain information more easily. In contrast, younger people struggled more with focus if they only played puzzle games, whereas those who liked strategy games could focus for longer.
Now, the team wants to delve deeper into these differences and discover why there’s a difference between types of games depending on the player’s age. They speculate that it may be connected to how the brain stores information as people age.
Cutting J, Copeland B McNab F (2023) Higher working memory capacity and distraction-resistance associated with strategy (not action) game playing in younger adults, but puzzle game playing in older adults. Heliyon, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2023.e19098