Playing 3D-platform video games may improve cognitive functions in seniors and increase grey matter in the hippocampus, a new study suggests.
Like it or not, those of us aged 55 and older are officially older or seniors, and according to research, it’s well past time to start caring for our brain. After all, according to Finder.com, the average lifespan of Australians is 85, so we may be here for as much as 50 or more years. Keeping our brain sharp can mean the difference between enjoying our golden years and succumbing to them.
Unbelievably, the pastimes of millions of people across the younger generations are good news for our aging minds. A Canadian study led by Professor Gregory West found that 3D platform games, such as Super Mario 64, can stave off mild impairment of cognition and may even be able to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings of West along along with Sylvie Belleville, and Isabelle Peretz of the Université de Montréal psychology in cooperation with the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (IUGM), Benjamin Rich Zendel of Memorial University in Newfoundland, and Véronique Bohbot of Montreal’s Douglas Hospital Research Centre were published in PLOS ONE.
According to Wikipedia, the hippocampus is a major component of our brains. We, and other mammals, have a hippocampus located on each side of the brain. It is part of the limbic system and plays an essential role in consolidating information accumulated by short- and long-term memory and in spatial memory used for navigation. The grey matter of the hippocampus acts as a marker for disorders of the brain that may occur over time—including mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.
In the 2014 and 2017 studies, people in their twenties played 3D logic and puzzle video games such as Super Mario 64. In both studies, the grey matter of the participants’ hippocampus increased after training. The professors wanted to determine if the grey matter increase found in the younger age group would appear in healthy seniors.
The study spanned six months, and in it, 33 people aged from 55 to 75 were divided randomly into three groups. In the control group, the seniors performed no particular task. The second group played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. The last group took piano lessons (none had taken previous classes) for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Gaming consoles and pianos were placed in participants’ homes by the study. Over six months, researchers evaluated the effects of the three assignments before starting and when ending the task (or lack of task). Using MRIs and two different cognitive-performance tests, they measured any disparities in grey matter volume. These differences represented brain activity and changes in three areas of the brain.
The MRI showed that only participants in the video-game group had an increase in grey matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum, as well as an improvement in short-term memory. The piano learners had an increase in grey matter in other parts of the brain, and the control group suffered some atrophy.
Professor West’s team found that 3D video games were responsible for engaging the participant’s hippocampus by causing it to create a mental representation in their brain of the virtual environment. There are other studies to suggest hippocampus stimulation increases both functional activity and grey matter within this region.
Grey matter atrophy
When a person’s brain is not learning new things, their grey matter withers. That doesn’t have to be the end of the story, though. Learning something new and playing 3D platform games were shown in this study to reverse atrophy and increase the volume of grey matter. Future research into Alzheimer’s disease will be affected by these findings since scientists have already established there is a link between the volume of the hippocampus and the risk of Alzheimer’s.
On average, the human adult brain loses 100,000 or so nerve cells every day and the hippocampus builds new cells to offset the loss. Learning fosters this growth.
Invite the grandkids
While many seniors are not tech-savvy, many studies have shown a relationship between keeping the brain active and maintaining mental acuity—which is reason enough to learn this new skill. Suppose the findings in Professor West’s study pan out. In that case, the best thing the older generation can do is invite the grandkids over for an afternoon of video games and enjoy not just the activity but the benefits of a sharper mind. What’s more, many of these games are available for mobile devices, which is an excellent way to while away time in the park or waiting for a doctor’s appointment.