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Video Games: Recreational Exercise for Mind and Body
Michael A. Piekarz
and videogames are becoming increasingly popular among seniors who
are using a variety of devices to improve their brain function, increase
coordination and battle often-intense boredom.
A 2003 New England Journal of Medicine study found that people who played board
games, learned to play a musical instrument or did crossword puzzles were less
likely to develop dementia than those who rarely did so or never did at all.
Increasing evidence supports the use of computer programs and videogames to increase
Generally, lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and mentally-challenging
activities are believed to ward off or delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases,
possibly by building connections between brain cells or even spurring the production
of new brain cells.
Dr. Hebert Keating, M.D., a member of the American Geriatrics Society, believes
that using technology can help make those new neural connections.
Keating encourages his patients to stay cerebrally active and believes that technology
is one way to do it.
“Technology is a great way for seniors to exercise their brains while opening
doors to new and exciting hobbies,” he explained. Many of his senior patients
are sold on the boost they get from technology.
“Aside from just being a hobby, my computer keeps me young – mentally,” said
81-year-old Joe Panitich. He purchased his first computer over 20 years ago and
finds it useful beyond playing games.
“Whether I’m staying updated on current events, downloading my favorite
songs, playing games or just using a mouse, the computer keeps me mentally active
and keeps my hand-eye coordination strong.”
Among the benefits cited by senior computer users are the mental challenges provided,
distraction from daily aches and pains and stress reduction. Other benefits include
an increase in hand-eye coordination – not only in seniors, but in younger
individuals as well.
Computer games don’t have to be specifically brain-oriented to pass on
benefits. A 2007 study by the University of Rochester using action computer games
showed a significant increase in the ability of the subjects to “track” specific
objects in a busy scene, focus on multiple objects at the same time and process
fast-changing visual information.
“Action videogame play changes the way our brains process visual information,” explained
Daphne Bavelier, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University
“After just 30 hours, players showed a substantial increase in the spatial
resolution of their vision, meaning they could see figures like those on an eye
chart more clearly, even when other symbols crowded in.”
“When people play action games, they’re changing the brain’s
pathway responsible for visual processing,” said Bavelier. “These
games push the human visual system to the limits, and the brain adapts to it.
That learning carries over into other activities and possibly everyday life.”
An earlier study at Iowa State University found that doctors who habitually played
videogames made 37 percent fewer mistakes and performed tasks 27 percent faster
during surgery than non-gaming doctors. The results have lead to an interest
in using computer games to train doctors.
The benefits of playing videogames may also reach such esoteric areas as treatment
of Attention Deficit Disorder and chronic pain management. The main benefit of
computer games doesn’t necessarily come with medically-verifiable fact.
PopCap Games specializes in making easy-to-learn and play computer games. A recent
customer survey stunned the company when it found that nearly half of its players
were over age 50. Most of those surveyed played because the games were simply
Many companies are now designing game systems which are senior friendly. Nintendo
of Japan has developed the handheld DS and the home Wii console, targeting gamers
of all generations. The Wii system, in particular, is proving popular. It’s
simplicity of operation and technological twist on old games is proving very
popular with seniors.
At age 61, Dick Norwood formed a “seniors only” Wii bowling league.
While admitting that he originally thought videogames were just for kids, he
soon found himself hooked because he could enjoy the bowling and socialization
without paying the price of hefting a heavy ball.
“I’ll tell you, at our age, when you bowl for real, you wake up with
aches and pains,” Norwood said. “Those balls aren’t light.
But with this you’re getting good exercise, and you’re not aching
the next day.”
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