People who play games score better on cognitive tests in their 70s. And increasing game play in later life appears to help lock in certain mental skills, say researchers.

Adults aged 70 to 79 were tested for cognitive abilities such as memory, problem solving and thinking speed at three-year intervals. They were also asked how often they played non-digital games such as cards, chess or crosswords.

The more they reported playing non-digital games, the higher study participants scored on the cognitive tests, said Drew Altschul, Ph.D., of the University of Edinburgh, UK. And those who increased their game playing in later years experienced less general cognitive decline, especially in memory and thinking speed, as they aged.

Most of this association could not be explained by the control variables. These included early-life cognitive function (participants were originally tested at age 11), education, social class, sex, activity levels, and health issues, Altschul and colleagues reported. 

The results add to a growing body of evidence that suggests cognitive decline is not inevitable and in some cases may be prevented, the researchers said.

“For those in their 70s or beyond … playing non-digital games may be a positive behavior in terms of reducing cognitive decline,” Altschul concluded.

Study participants were all born in 1936 in Scotland and took part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947. Researchers have been working with the group on further studies since 1999. Full findings appear in The Journals of Gerontology.