Playing digital puzzle games in older adults improves memory

Study shows better memory retention in adults over 60 when engaging in digital puzzle games helps ignore distractions, contradicting results when playing strategy games.
Shubhangi Dua
Older adults playing digital puzzle games could improve their memory retention
Older adults playing digital puzzle games could improve their memory retention

Brothers91 / Canva 

According to Entertainment Software Association (ESA), over 164 million adults in the United States played video games, and three-quarters of all Americans had at least one gamer in their household in 2019. 

As gaming becomes increasingly prevalent, a recent study conducted by the University of York found that older adults who engage in digital puzzle games exhibit memory abilities the same as individuals in their twenties.

Helps disregard distractions

A statement by researchers said that adults aged 60 and above playing digital puzzle games had a greater ability to ignore irrelevant distractions. However, older adults who played strategy games did not show the same improvements in memory or concentration.

Past research established that as humans age, their mental capabilities tend to deteriorate including the ability to recall multiple things at the same time called – working memory. 

Scientists stated, “Working memory is thought to peak between the ages of 20 and 30 before slowly declining as a person gets older.”  

Therefore, the study’s primary focus was comparing memory abilities in older adults and younger adults playing ‘real-life’ digital games. Thus, scientists tested a wide range of games in digital experiments where participants memorized images, whilst remaining distracted.

Higher attention and memory

Dr. Fiona McNab, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology, stated that the major focus remained on action games as they often require quick reactions by the players, help keep track of targets, and as a result, require high attention and memory abilities.

“Our new analysis shows that the action elements do not seem to offer significant benefits to younger adults,” McNab explained, “It instead seems to be the strategy elements of the games - planning and problem solving for example – that stimulates better memory and attention in young people.”

She further noted that the same effect wasn’t observed in older adults, but better research is required to understand the reasons for that. Scientists have to consider the challenges posed by strategy games to be as difficult for memory improvement as digital puzzle games until proven otherwise.

Dr. Joe Cutting, from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science, talked about ‘encoding distraction’ – a scenario in which people have a good ability to ignore irrelevant distractions, which contributes to memory retention.

The process leads to enhanced memory consolidation where the brain strengthens the connection linked to the information being learned. 

Cutting alluded to an example wherein a person could memorize the name of a street whilst being distracted by a child or a dog, but this ability does decline human age. 

“Puzzle games for older people had this surprising ability to support mental capabilities to the extent that memory and concentration levels were the same as a 20 year-olds who had not played puzzle games,” he clarified.

Accounting game types in research

Regardless, the study uncovered contrasting evidence based on age and game type with older individuals demonstrating a higher likelihood of forgetting memorized elements when engaged in strategy games while encountering distractions. 

In contrast, younger participants faced challenges in focusing their attention when exclusively playing puzzle games.

The study’s results emphasized the importance of taking different game types into account for research and designing cognitive interventions suitable for different ages. 

The researchers are calling for future studies to set sights on analyzing the variation in the outcomes of different game types relying on the player’s age and observing its connection to how the brain stores information as individuals grow older

The study was published on 11 August in the journal – Heliyon.

Study abstract:

Superior attention and Working Memory (WM) have been reported for habitual action video gamers compared to other gamers or non-players. With an online experiment we measured visuo-spatial WM capacity and ability to ignore distraction, and participants listed the video games they played. Categorising the 209 young adult participants (18–30 years) according to the game type they predominantly played revealed superior WM capacity for strategy and action gamers compared to non-players. However, re-categorising the games according to their constituent game types revealed superior WM capacity and distraction resistance associated with strategy but not action game components. In contrast to younger adults, data from 181 older adults (60–81 years) showed superior WM capacity and distractor-resistance for puzzle gamers, which was equivalent to that of younger adults. The results highlight the need to consider component game types in games research and inform the design of age-appropriate cognitive interventions.

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