A recent study from the University of York has revealed that elderly individuals engaging in digital puzzle games exhibit memory capacities comparable to those in their 20s.
Furthermore, the research demonstrated that adults 60 years and older who indulge in digital puzzle games are better at ignoring irrelevant distractions. However, such enhancements in memory or focus were not observed in older adults who played strategy games.
It is known that as humans age, their mental abilities tend to decrease, particularly the ability to remember a number of things at a single time – known as working memory. Working memory is thought to peak between the ages of 20 and 30 before slowly declining as a person gets older.
Previous research, however, has shown that the way we hold information in the brain changes as we get older, and so the York team looked at whether the impacts of particular types of mental stimulation, such as gaming, also had altered effects depending on age.
Dr. Fiona McNab, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology, said: “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.
“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 included older and younger adults playing digital games that they would normally play in their ‘real lives’. This resulted in a wide range of games to be tested alongside a digital experiment that required participants to memorize images, whilst being distracted.
Dr Joe Cutting, from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science, said: “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.
“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-old who had not played puzzle games.”
Older people were however more likely to forget elements committed to memory whilst being distracted if they only played strategy games, and young people were less successful at focusing attention if they played only puzzle games.
The researchers say future studies could focus on why there is a difference between the impacts of types of games depending on the age of a player and if this is connected to how the brain stores information as people age.
Reference: “Higher working memory capacity and distraction-resistance associated with strategy (not action) game playing in younger adults, but puzzle game playing in older adults” by Joe Cutting, Bethany Copeland and Fiona McNab, 13 August 2023, Heliyon.