AGING
May 3, 2013

A Video Game You Buy for Your Parents

Video games are a perfect way to work out aging brains. Senior gamers, start your engines.

Parents of a certain age may want to commandeer their kids' video game consoles. While games can threaten kids' attention spans and hinder development, those designed to give specific brain processes a workout can actually delay or reverse mental declines in older people and even improve certain mental abilities.

Cognitive decline is part of aging, with some studies finding it can start as early as age 28. But evidence has been accumulating for years that lifestyle choices — from getting enough exercise to speaking a second language — can slow this slide. Now there's a study showing that a video game can do the same.

Those who had worked at crossword puzzles showed a decline in their useful field of view. But those who had played Road Tour for 10 hours were protected against this decline, actually showing a slight increase in their field of vision.

Growing older does not have to mean a life of watching TV reruns.

Road Tour is a game designed to expand your field of vision, which tends to shrink with age. The game asks you to extract more information from the edges of your view, not just what's straight ahead of you, improving your peripheral vision. Better peripheral vision, being able to see a wider swath of your environment, is what enables you to see sooner cars or people who may be entering traffic from the edge of the road or approaching an intersection. Improved vision may help you see a potential accident in the making while there's still time to prevent it.

The game, which its manufacturer prefers to call brain-training software, challenges you to quickly recognize a type of vehicle and match its symbol with the correct road sign among a circular array of possibilities, a memory task. It also requires that you concentrate on the edge of the screen so that you can note the spot where a particular road sign briefly appears amidst a sea of other road signs.

As you learn to do this well, the game makes it more difficult by adding various distractions to the screen that make it harder to spot what you're looking for and speeding up play.

Fredric Wolinsky, a professor of public health at the University of Iowa and his team tested the mental benefits for people 50 years or older of playing Road Tour compared to the benefits from solving computerized crossword puzzles. They divided participants into four groups, separating them into sets of those 50 to 64 and those over 65. Three groups used the Road Tour game repeatedly. The fourth group was given computerized crossword puzzles.

The mental and perceptual benefits began to show up after only 10 hours of play.

One year later, those who had worked at crossword puzzles showed a decline in their useful field of view. But those who had played Road Tour for 10 hours were protected against this decline, actually showing a slight increase in their field of vision.

The effects of Road Tour were the same for those 50-64 years old and for those over 65. Other measure of cognitive abilities such as concentration, the ability to shift from one mental task to another, and the speed at which new information is processed suggest that Road Tour players were protected from 1.5 to over six years of decline.

If playing Road Tour, physical exercise, and speaking a second language can all help keep your mind sharper, it's a good chance that there are plenty of other activities that do so as well. It all adds up to a good reason to keep your mind engaged — either you use it or you lose it.

The article is published in PLoS One.

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