Debate over engaging seniors' brains

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

Five years ago, I spent several weeks as a paid volunteer in a clinical study at Johns Hopkins University. The good part was that for two of the sessions, I played computer games. The bad part was I was hooked up to an IV and a capsaicin cream was put on my hand; then a hot press was placed over it.

It was similar to what I imagine it would feel like if you laid down, put some liquid jalapeno peppers on your chest, and then had someone iron you.

(Did I mention I was paid for being in this study?)

The goal of the project, to my recollection, was to see if people in pain could be distracted, and if that effect was measurable through certain markers in blood, such as cortisol. Each session would start with a nurse putting in an IV, and then I'd go sit in a room. During two sessions, I had to stare at a door or wall for what felt like forever, but which I think was about 45 minutes. During two other sessions, I played the game Bejeweled, a tile-matching puzzle game. Guess which sessions went by faster?

While I can't find the results of that study, I was reminded of it when a new study was revealed to show more effects on the impact on video gaming. Researchers at McGill University and Douglas Research Institute of the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île de Montréal say that video game players have more efficient visual attention abilities, and are more likely to use navigation strategies that rely on the brain's “reward system.” However, those who play a lot of video games may have “reduced hippocampal integrity.”

Stay with me here, because it may impact your current and future residents. For one, it's a potential setback from hearing about how video games can keep seniors' brains active. It's unclear what it may mean for those using devices as part of stroke rehabilitation.

Reduced hippocampal integrity is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease. So while it's good that action video game players have better visual attention, they might also be rotting other parts of their brains. Researchers said that more work is needed to make sure games don't negatively impact the hippocampus, which is widely believed to have a direct association with memory.

To be fair, the variety among computer or video games is far greater than we acknowledge, with no clear sense of whether a live-action “you are there” game is better or worse than moving tiles around on a computer.

From a neurological standpoint, I'm not sure whether we know if Tetris is different in its impact on brains when compared to playing Assassins' Creed. I also believe the impact of being bored in a long-term care facility is more likely to hurt one's brain than a video game.

But, as in all things related to science, it's not a bad idea to keep up with where the research may be headed. I'm still a believe in investment in activities that keep seniors' minds engaged, but there is more to discover in the best ways to do that.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow her @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.