Posted on Aug 15, 2023, 5 p.m.
Older adults aged 60+ who play digital puzzle games had the same memory abilities as those in their 20s, according to a new study from the University of York that was published in the journal ScienceDirect Heliyon. The older adults also had a greater ability to ignore irrelevant distractions, however, older adults who played strategy games did not experience the same improvements in concentration or memory.
As people age their mental abilities will typically tend to decrease, in particular, the ability to remember more than one thing at a single moment which is called working memory. Working memory is believed to reach its peak between the ages of 20-30 years old, after that point it begins to slowly decline with age. Research indicates that the way we retain information in the brain also changes as we get older, this study looked at whether the impacts of types of mental stimulation also had altered effects.
“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 stimulates 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.”
For this study, older (aged 60+) and younger people (in their 20s) played a wide range of digital games that they would normally play outside of the study, which was tested alongside a digital experiment that required the participant to memorize images while being distracted. Results showed that the older participants were more likely to forget elements committed to memory while being distracted if they only played strategy games, and the younger participants were less able to focus their attention if they only played puzzle games.
“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.”
Looking forward, the researchers would like to investigate why there is a difference between the impacts of different types of games depending on the age of the player, and whether it is connected to how the brain stores information as people age.
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