Playing for a Better Memory

In response to the shelter-in-place restricting millions of people from pursuing outside leisure activities, there has been an increase in home entertainment systems, particularly video games and consoles. While video games are primarily seen as a source of entertainment only for younger people, they can also be of value to older populations stuck at home. Video games engage a person’s cognitive function and can often involve active forms of learning in a variety of situations. As a result, playing video games as an adult can have the potential to prevent or mitigate the effects of cognitive decline.

 According to the CDC, cognitive decline or impairment can be described by having trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect everyday life. More severe forms can lead to losing the ability to live independently because of the inability to understand the meaning of something or to communicate properly. In the US, there are more than 16 million people living with cognitive impairment, and the adult population is continuing to grow. This will lead to an increase in the need for social and health services because more people are unable to adequately care for themselves. 

In order to address this growing issue, it is important to find ways to mitigate or even prevent the effects of cognitive impairment as much as possible. Existing recommendations include performing consistent exercise, maintaining good-quality sleep, and having social interactions. However, playing video games offers a different and additional approach that can stimulate the brain and its memory while also allowing people to have fun.

Previous animal studies have shown that providing animals with environmental enrichment modified spaces can help promote neurogenesis and improve performance on memory tasks involving the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that plays a major role in memory and learning. As one ages, the hippocampus naturally begins to lose its structure and function, but the animal studies have revealed that the hippocampus still retains some level of plasticity, a quality of the brain being able to change its connections in response to stimuli. This means that the brain and hippocampus can still be influenced by the environment.

Dr. Silvia Bunge, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, published her team’s work studying the connection between improved cognitive function in older adults and higher levels of education. The researchers determined that repeatedly exercising the brain’s plasticity through partaking in challenging, engaging work helped to improve cognitive skills of the subjects over time. 

Video games, especially 3-dimensional ones that allow exploration, are made to be engaging, challenging, and immersive so that players can experience and solve problems in a different world. Research done with young adults resulted in data highlighting the ability of video games to improve hippocampal-associated behaviors necessary for cognition. The novel, virtual environment of 3D video games provides a rich plethora of information and stimulation that players can take in and explore, requiring many cognitive processes such as visual, spatial, motivational, attentional, emotion, and critical thinking. 

Similarly in a study performed with older individuals ages 60-80, 3D gameplay for 30-45 minutes everyday over a four week period showed improved recognition memory and overall enhanced cognitive health. The findings suggested that being exposed to novel experiences through a rich 3D environment could help improve cognition for everyone, especially those at risk for cognitive decline.

As a result, incorporating 3D video games regularly into one’s schedule can help prevent or reduce declining cognitive health in people of all ages. The act of working the brain in various cognitive ways can promote active learning, exercise neural plasticity, and reinforce healthy brain behavior. Since people can be hindered by situations which require them to stay indoors, video games can provide a virtual and fun way to supplement the existing recommendations for addressing cognitive impairment. As the population continues to age, cognitive decline becomes an issue for everyone. Whether a close family member is affected by it or the overall society is impacted by the costs of resulting healthcare, it is also important to be able to preserve one’s own mental independence and health for as long as possible.