Can playing video games help as we age?

Carlton Boyce / 28 June 2016 ( 27 April 2017 )

Does playing video games help avoid some of the drawbacks of ageing, such as memory loss and cognitive decline?

Most of us would instinctively assume playing video games must help avoid some of the drawbacks of ageing, such as memory loss and cognitive decline. 

After all, if completing Sudoku and crossword puzzles can help slow or even contribute to preventing the onset of dementia, the more carefully targeted use of computer games must be useful in similar scenarios, surely?

Find out more about the health benefits of playing games

What does the evidence on playing video games say?

The American Psychological Association conducted a study in which the participants played a computer-based strategy video game. It concluded that: “The trainees improved significantly in the measures of game performance. They also improved significantly more than the control participants in executive control functions, such as task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and reasoning.”

However, these results are not necessarily replicable; similar studies have been undertaken that showed only a non-significant difference (ie, any difference or improvement may well have been down to chance or factors that varied between the test subjects and the control group) – or even no difference at all.

The Alzheimer’s Association takes the view that: “Mentally challenging activities, such as learning a new skill, adopting a new hobby or engaging in formal education, may have short and long-term benefits for your brain. To keep your mind active, it is important to participate in activities that expose your mind to new topics.”

So, playing computer video games that have a strong cognitive element and include an element of strategic thinking are likely to be helpful to a greater or lesser extent, even if the improvements might vary from person to person and from skillset to skillset.

What games might help combat the drawbacks of growing older?

It is thought that playing simple computer games such as Tetris and Donkey Kong will lead to some improvement in cognitive tasks, but any improvement is likely to be limited and probably won’t result in improvements across a wider range of tasks. 

This is probably because playing them relies on the use of existing skills and strategies, whereas the acquisition of new skills and learning seems to be at the heart of staving off cognitive decline.

Playing more complex video games, games that require a deeper level of mental acuity and the development of new skills and learning, are more likely to produce greater improvements in mental ability depending on the activity that is demanded of the player.

So, playing shooting games, for example, may improve hand/eye co-ordination and your reflexes, while games that require you to time jumps and plot their trajectories (Super Mario is possibly the best-known example) demand more complex mental processes and calculations, and so may produce improvements in areas such as multi-tasking. 

Finally, games that involve an element of role-playing are thought to help long-term memory and the ability to plan and carry out complex tasks.

Video games to help hand-eye coordination

Can playing video games be harmful?

The link between playing video games and long-term anti-social or even criminal behaviour in children is still unproven, with contradictory studies producing diverging results. 

(The link with short-term aggression is much stronger, as anyone with small children or grandchildren who have just watched something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be able to confirm…)

While some children do appear to be suggestible and display greater aggression and less pro-social behaviour in the long-term, others do not, possibly because they are able to distinguish between reality and fiction in a way that we might have previously underestimated.

In either case, it is highly unlikely that playing a mainstream videogame is going to do you any harm!

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Playing physical computer games

Playing computer games that require a level of physical movement like Wii Fit Plus and Xbox Fitness, as well as computer console games that involve acting out sports such as bowling, running, and jumping, will have a positive effect on the player’s physical fitness through a general training effect.

Just don’t overdo it, eh?

Video games to help with your balance

The wider benefits

The wider benefits of playing video games are clear-cut and beyond dispute. 

Spending time with your peers and other age groups playing computer games is a very sociable way to spend a couple of hours and helps span the generation gap, immediately giving you something in common with your kids or grandchildren. 

It will help decrease any feelings of loneliness and give you a chance to show the young ‘uns that there’s life in the old dog yet!

Playing computer games may also take some of the fear out of using a computer more generally. Given society’s increasing dependence on computers for everything from healthcare and banking to socialising and shopping, this can only be a good thing.

Computer games to play together

Future developments

With an ever-aging population it is inevitable that computer games will continue to be developed that actively target specific areas of cognitive and physical decline.

This is good news for us all, but don’t forget that a game of backgammon or bridge is also going to produce cognitive benefits, especially if you supplement them with a glass of memory-boosting red wine…

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.