Computers, smart phones, tablets, and other high-tech appliances offer users faster communication, wider connection to the world around them, and access to information—and they also provide a gymnasium where older adults can engage in interactive brain workouts to help improve or maintain mental acuity.
As high-tech devices become more widely used among older adults, researchers have been looking at their effects on cognitive performance in these individuals, and numerous scientific papers have provided evidence that computerized brain-training activities can improve aspects of mental functioning. A study published Aug. 21, 2013 in the journal PLoS One concluded that playing real-time strategy video games that encourage creative thinking and problem-solving for 40 hours over eight weeks significantly improved older participants’ flexible thinking skills.
Another study—published in the July 2013 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychia-try—found that older retirees who played 40 20-minute sessions of a computerized brain fitness game over a period of six months made significant improvements on tests measuring immediate and delayed memory, as well as language skills.
The following Internet sites offer free downloads of challenging computer games.
“While there is still an ongoing debate over whether brain training on computers and other devices can improve an individual’s overall intelligence, there’s broad agreement among scientists that many of these activities do deliver short-term mental gains,” says James N. Rosenquist, PhD, MD, an MGH psychiatrist whose research focuses on the interaction of new media and mental health. “At the very least, regularly engaging in challenging mental activities on a computer, smart phone, or other device appears to help forestall cognitive decline and provide transient benefits in a variety of mental tasks.”
Studies suggest that the benefits of brain-challenging computerized games and exercises vary according to the type of activity. Of course, the individual’s degree of effort matters as well—most experts agree that to begin to see benefits, practitioners must train a minimum of about 20 hours over eight weeks or less, and training must continue in order to maintain benefits.
Activities and Benefits
Research into the nature of positive cognitive changes associated with specific high-tech activities includes the following findings:
- Task-specific training, such as studying a foreign language, results in the acquisition of new knowledge that increases brain plasticity (the formation of new connections among brain cells in response to learning). The brain gains are specific to the topic being learned, and are generally not transferable.
- Video games, specifically complex games such as Road Tour and StarCraft that require such skills as on-the-spot thinking, learning from past errors, quick reactions, and tactical skills, have been found to increase attention, reasoning, information processing speed, flexible thinking skills, and the ability to mentally shift in response to changing goals and circumstances.
- Brain fitness training involves engagement in one or several of a variety of challenging mental tasks de-signed to exercise such brain functions as short- and long-term memory, reasoning and problem-solving, mathematical calculations, language usage, and visual-spatial processing. Recent studies have found that this type of brain-training activity can help improve memory, language abilities, attention, the ability to process spoken information, and visual processing speed. One specific type of memory training, called N-back training, has been shown in research to boost performance on tasks requiring attention and working memory, and may actually help practitioners improve their fluid intelligence—the ability to solve novel problems, to learn, to reason, to see connections and understand underlying mechanisms.
- Recall exercises are challenging tasks—often timed and involving competition with other users—in which players exercise their memories through recalling information previously learned (e.g., the names of the 50 states or six flowers beginning with the letter R). They are featured on popular Internet sites such as Sporcle, which is free. These exercises increase general knowledge, while providing entertainment and social interaction,
- Social media, such as Facebook, may help older users build up working memories and learn to update their recollections by discarding prior information that is no longer useful, according to a recent study presented at the 2013 International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting. Researchers found that older adults who used Facebook for eight weeks boosted their mental updating capabilities by 25 percent.
“Many of the brain exercises and games available on the Internet offer individuals the ability to measure how they’re doing in various aspects of brain functioning, and to track their improvement over time—a boost to self-esteem,” says Dr. Rosenquist. “If these activities are used in moderation to replace activities that don’t result in any cognitive improvement, such as watching tele-vision, they can be very worthwhile. They are an easily accessible and highly effective way to put the brain through its paces.”