For some time now, doctors anecdotally have said that seniors who play simple brain games stave off memory problems.
Now, a study published Jan. 30 in JAMA Neurology
puts some science behind this theory with a sample of 1,929 adults. Playing games, using a computer, and social engagement were associated with decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. (1)
The first-of-its-kind experiment included a sample from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging in Olmsted County, Minn. Most of the participants were white, with a median age of 77 at the start of the study. Lastly, all of the subjects had normal cognitive (memory and thinking) skills at baseline.
The researchers followed these seniors for four years, having them report the extent to which they exercised their minds daily. In addition, they performed regular assessments of memory and cognition.
The researchers were led by Dr. Yonas E. Geda of Mayo Scottsdale. They found that using a computer had the most significant impact on lowering the risk of cognitive impairment. Following this were playing games and crafting, and engaging in social activities. Reading books did not result in a statistically significant impact in reducing memory problems, but came close, the researchers reported.
The results were based on seniors who performed the above-mentioned activities at least once or twice per week.
The study sample included more than 500 participants who carried the APOE E4 genotype. This genotype is known to increase dementia risk. “APOE4 alleles are the great genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s,” reports Cognitive Vitality, a non-profit foundation that raises money to fund pharmaceutical treatments of dementia. (2) “Many people develop Alzheimer’s who don’t have an APOE4 allele. However, it does increase your risk for developing the disease as well as lower the age of potential disease onset.”
Exercising mind beneficial even to those with genetic risk
“After adjusting for sex, age, and educational level, we observed that playing games and engaging in craft activities, computer use and social activities were associated with a decreased risk of incident MCI,” the authors reported. “Additional adjustment for medical comorbidity, depression, and APOE4 genotype did not significantly alter the results.”
Among study participants who did not have APOE4, of 1,077 who used a computer, 193 developed MCI. Of 276 subjects with APOE4, 61 computer users developed MCI. Among carriers of APOE4, only computer use and engaging in social activities resulted in reduced risk of developing MCI.
“We consistently observed the lowest risk of incident MCI in participants who engaged in any type of mentally stimulating activity and were APOE4 noncarriers compared with the reference group,” the authors reported. “In contrast, participants who were APOE4 carriers and did not engage in mentally stimulating activities tended to have the highest risk for incident MCI.”
Including those with and without APOE4, 456 people of the total sample developed MCI, or 24 percent.
Mild cognitive impairment is defined as thinking problems in the range between normal memory loss associated with aging and dementia. Also, this leads to an impaired ability to carry out the activities of daily living. Certainly, cognitive decline is what ultimately causes a senior to lose their independence.
Computer use had the most widespread benefits
“Our study could not disentangle why some mentally stimulating activities (e.g. computer use) had a larger effect size on the decreased risk of incident MCI than other activities (e.g. reading books),” the authors reported. “However, we speculate that a particular mental activity (e.g. computer use) may require specific technical and manual skills and that these could be the factors that might be associated with a decreased risk of cognitive decline.”
Furthermore, there are two types of MCI. Amnestic MCI means a significant impairment in memory. In non-amnestic MCI, memory remains intact. However, it does affect daily activities such as talking, visual-spatial skills and executive function (putting thoughts into action). (3)
“We observed significant associations between craft activities, computer use and social activities and a decrease risk of incident amnestic MCI,” the authors reported. “However, we observed a significant association only between computer use and a decreased risk of incident nonamnestic MCI.”
Social activities included outings such as going to the movies or the theater. Many seniors become socially inactive late in life due to the loss of a spouse or close friends. Even more experts encourage seniors to stay active by enrolling in programs at senior centers. Moreover, even taking a class through their local parks and recreation departments is a great idea. Most cities even offer seniors classes on how to use a computer. Fortunately, it is far less intimidating than many seniors believe. Computers never have been easier to use.
In conclusion of the study, “Future research is needed to understand the mechanisms linking mentally stimulating activities and cognition late in life.”
- 1. Krell-Roesch, et al. (2017, Jan. 30). Association between mentally stimulating activities in late life and the outcome of incident mild cognitive impairment, with an analysis of the APOE4 Genotype. JAMA Neurology. Retrieved Jan. 29, 2017, from http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/10.1001/jamaneurol.2016.3822
- 2. Carman, A. (2014, Aug. 19). What APOE means for your health. Cognitive Vitality. Retrieved Jan. 29, 2017, from http://alzdiscovery.org/cognitive-vitality/blog/what-apoe-means-for-your-health
9 thoughts on “The Impact of Computers and Games on the Aging Brain”
It would be useful to have a definition of computer use. What activities and for what period.
Thank you Marty. Rich, I would suggest taking a class at a local senior center or through your city’s park board to learn the many uses of a computer.
Was just diagnosed with amnestic MCI yesterday at 63 years. This article was very helpful as I digest what it means to be in this situation sooner rather than later… Thank you David for pointing out familiar proactive behaviors I can engage in more frequently that hopefully may help to slow advancement of the disease! I’m going to save this article for future encouragement. Then I’m going to get busy with Turbo-Tax which has always been a very stimulating activity on the PC. ?
I’m 77 years old and have been studying German for three years now, on a daily basis. Although some days I feel sharper than others, overall I don’t think I have declined mentally at all. I wonder if I would know if I declined?
I am always on my iPad listening to music, keeping up with the news and current events. I am 64 years old and I don’t do Facebook people can be very cruel and I try to keep a positive outlook on life and try to keep out the negative as much as possible.
I am 70 and have not noticed any mental decline yet. Of course I will retire at the end of March and we will see what happens then. I have been active with computers and PLCs since the late 70s, as an electrical engineer and PLC programmer. I would like to take the time to learn a new language, may C++. I understand what the comments about people being mean on social media as I lost several friends during the election. Don’t let the Trolls and other critters get you down. Either ignore them or use a little humor and watch them explode 🙂
Learning to play a musical instrument should be included in these studies! It requires the parts of the brain that are used to learn a language, but also includes the physical component and the emotional elements that impact memory. Lessons should be offered at senior centers, assisted living and nursing facilities. Those living independently can search for a local teacher or music store to take lessons. I am a piano instructor and teach all ages! My young students often perform extremely well academically and my seniors are very active.
What kinds of computer games are they talking about? How can people tell I’d they are playing the right kind?
Great question. This link about Brain Games on our Jitterbug phones should provide some more information. Things that test memory, math, and puzzle-solving are definitely a plus! https://www.greatcall.com/services-apps/brain-games