As individuals age, it is not uncommon for them to encounter challenges with memory, particularly in the realm of working memory. Working memory, as defined by the National Library of Medicine, refers to “the limited amount of information that can be held in mind and utilized in the process of cognitive tasks.”(1)
For example, when a person is given a set of instructions to complete a task, they rely on their working memory to retain and apply those instructions throughout the task.
Researchers often explore methods to enhance memory capacities, and a frequently studied area involves video gaming. Now, a team of scientists from the University of York in England have found that the genre of video games that people engage with might influence their working memory and their ability to filter out distractions.
Read on to find out more about enhancing memory in seniors and the benefits of digital puzzle games.
Evaluation Methods Employed in Studying Working Memory
The research being discussed here was recently published in the Heliyon Journal in August 2023.(2) Let us take a closer look at what the study found and how the researchers assessed working memory.
The study encompassed a comprehensive analysis of data from 482 participants, with a notable majority being female (297 individuals). The age range of participants spanned from 18 to 81 years, prompting the researchers to categorize them into two distinct groups: younger adults (ages 18–30) and older adults (ages 60–81).
Each participant was tasked with providing detailed accounts of their gaming habits. This encompassed the frequency of engaging with digital games, the specific genres they favored, and the amount of time dedicated to gameplay. The researchers took into account all forms of digital gaming, encompassing arcade, PC, console, and mobile app games.
Furthermore, participants were prompted to indicate when they initiated their involvement in video gaming — whether within the past year, decade, or earlier.
Subsequently, participants undertook an online working memory assessment. This evaluation was designed to scrutinize various conditions, including:
- No Distraction: This segment of the assessment sought to evaluate the participants’ proficiency in recalling the positions of red circles displayed on a grid for a brief duration. After a short exposure, the grid would go blank, requiring participants to retain the locations of the red circles.
- Encoding Distraction: This aspect involved presenting both red and yellow circles during the assessment. Participants were instructed to concentrate solely on the positions of the red circles, disregarding the presence of yellow circles. They were then tasked with recalling the locations on the blank grid.
- Delay Distraction: The assessment incorporated an additional component to assess the “delay distraction” condition. Alongside the presence of yellow circles, a delay was introduced between the disappearance of the red circles from the grid and the subsequent filling of the empty grid spaces.
This rigorous assessment protocol allowed the researchers to gain comprehensive insights into the participants’ working memory capabilities under various distraction conditions, shedding light on the potential impact of gaming habits on cognitive performance.
Impact of Gaming Types on Memory Improvement in Younger and Older Adults
The researching team delved into the connection between specific types of digital games and their potential to enhance memory, particularly in the context of age-related decline in working memory. To systematically investigate this, the research team further segmented both the younger and older participant groups. They categorized them based on their reported gaming preferences, dividing them into the following categories:(3,4)
Surprisingly, the study revealed that among younger adults, those who engaged with strategy games demonstrated notably enhanced working memory capacities when compared to their peers who favored action games. This finding was unexpected, given that prior research had indicated that playing action games was linked to superior performance across various measures of attention, perception, and executive function, as highlighted by the study’s authors.
Upon dissecting the elements within the games to discern whether they predominantly featured action or strategy components, it became evident that strategy games held a distinct advantage in bolstering working memory among younger adults.
Furthermore, the lead author of the study from the University of York’s Department of Computer Science, also emphasized that puzzle games had an astonishing capability to support cognitive functions in older individuals. Remarkably, engagement with puzzle games led to levels of memory and concentration that were on par with those of a 20-year-old, who had not engaged with such games.
These findings, no doubt, underscore the potential of specific gaming genres to play a pivotal role in mitigating age-related declines in memory, presenting promising avenues for further research in cognitive enhancement through digital gaming.
Positive Impact of Digital Puzzle Games on Working Memory and Distraction Management
The analysis of the gathered data yielded compelling insights into the influence of digital puzzle games on the working memory of older adults. Surprisingly, those who reported engaging with digital puzzle games demonstrated a notably higher working memory capacity in comparison to their peers who either played different game genres or refrained from gaming altogether.
Furthermore, the study highlighted an additional benefit for older adults who immersed themselves in digital puzzle games – an enhanced ability to effectively filter out distractions. This finding suggests a potential cognitive advantage gained from puzzle games beyond the realm of memory.(5)
Authors of the study note that it appears to be the strategic elements inherent in puzzle games, such as the need for planning and problem-solving, which contributed to the improvement of memory and attention in younger individuals.
However, intriguingly, this effect did not seem to be as pronounced in older adults. Of course, there is need for further research to delve into the reasons behind this differential response, providing an avenue for future studies to unravel the nuances of cognitive enhancement through puzzle gaming in different age groups.
What are the Factors Behind Age-Related Memory Decline?
Memory deterioration in seniors is primarily attributed to a combination of biological, structural, and functional changes that naturally occur in the aging brain. Here are some of the key factors contributing to age-related memory decline:
- Neurological Changes: As individuals age, there is a natural decline in the production of certain neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, which play a crucial role in memory and learning. This reduction in neurotransmitter activity can affect cognitive functions.(6)
- Brain Structure and Volume: The brain undergoes structural changes over time. Some areas, including the hippocampus (critical for memory formation), may experience a reduction in volume and functional connectivity. This can lead to difficulties in forming and retrieving memories.(7)
- Reduced Blood Flow and Oxygen Supply: With age, there can be a decrease in blood flow to the brain. This reduced circulation means less oxygen and nutrients are delivered to brain cells, which can impact their ability to function optimally.(8)
- Accumulation of Brain Proteins: Seniors may accumulate abnormal proteins in the brain, such as amyloid plaques and tau tangles. These are associated with neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and can contribute to memory decline.(9)
- Hormonal Changes: Changes in hormone levels, including estrogen and testosterone, can affect cognitive function and memory in both men and women.(10)
- Inflammation and Oxidative Stress: Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, common in aging, can lead to damage to brain cells and impair their ability to communicate effectively.
- Chronic Health Conditions: Chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease can affect blood flow to the brain and contribute to cognitive decline.
- Lifestyle Factors: Unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as a poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, and smoking, can accelerate cognitive decline.
- Sleep Disruptions: Seniors may experience changes in sleep patterns, including difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Poor sleep quality can negatively impact memory consolidation.(11)
- Psychological Factors: Conditions like depression, anxiety, and chronic stress can affect memory function. Additionally, untreated mental health conditions can exacerbate cognitive decline.
It is important to note that not all seniors experience significant memory decline, and there is considerable variation in cognitive aging. Engaging in activities that promote cognitive stimulation, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and seeking regular medical check-ups can help support cognitive health as we age.
Tips for Improving Memory
The study discussed above has again emphasized the need to keep working on boosting our cognitive powers. Improving memory involves a combination of lifestyle changes, cognitive exercises, and the adoption of certain techniques. Here are some in-depth strategies for enhancing memory:
- Regular Exercise: Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which helps improve cognitive function and memory. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
- Balanced Diet: Nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, provide the essential nutrients that support brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon are particularly beneficial.
- Adequate Sleep: Quality sleep is crucial for memory consolidation. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night to allow your brain to process and store information effectively.
- Stress Management: Chronic stress can impair memory function. Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to reduce stress levels.
- Mental Stimulation: Engage in activities that challenge your brain, such as puzzles, brain games, reading, or learning a new skill or language. This helps create new neural pathways and strengthens existing ones.
- Social Engagement: Regular social interaction stimulates the brain. Engage in conversations, join clubs or groups, and maintain meaningful relationships.
- Chunking and Mnemonics: Break information into smaller, manageable chunks. Use mnemonic devices like acronyms or visual imagery to help remember complex information.
- Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness practices and meditation can improve focus and concentration, which are crucial for memory retention.
- Stay Mentally Active: Engage in activities that challenge your mind, such as learning a musical instrument, doing puzzles, or playing strategy games.
- Seek Professional Guidance: If you are experiencing significant memory difficulties, it is important to consult a healthcare professional. Memory problems can sometimes be an early sign of underlying medical conditions.
Remember, consistency is key when implementing these strategies. It is important to integrate these practices into your daily routine for the best results.
Research has indicated that digital puzzle games offer a valuable and enjoyable avenue for enhancing memory in seniors. By engaging with these games, seniors can stimulate cognitive functions, improve problem-solving skills, and enhance memory retention. The interactive and dynamic nature of digital puzzles provides a fun and accessible way to keep the mind active and sharp. Moreover, the adaptability of these games allows seniors to choose challenges that suit their preferences and abilities, promoting a sense of accomplishment and boosting confidence. Embracing digital puzzle games can be a fulfilling and effective strategy for seniors looking to maintain and even improve their cognitive abilities, ultimately contributing to a higher quality of life in the golden years.
- Cowan, N., 2014. Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning, and education. Educational psychology review, 26, pp.197-223.
- Cutting, J., Copeland, B. and McNab, F., 2023. Higher working memory capacity and distraction-resistance associated with strategy (not action) game playing in younger adults, but puzzle game playing in older adults. Heliyon, 9(8).
- Wilms, I.L., Petersen, A. and Vangkilde, S., 2013. Intensive video gaming improves encoding speed to visual short-term memory in young male adults. Acta psychologica, 142(1), pp.108-118.
- Moisala, M., Salmela, V., Hietajärvi, L., Carlson, S., Vuontela, V., Lonka, K., Hakkarainen, K., Salmela-Aro, K. and Alho, K., 2017. Gaming is related to enhanced working memory performance and task-related cortical activity. Brain research, 1655, pp.204-215.
- Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, E. and de Ruyter, B., 2008. Developing an adaptive memory game for seniors. In Fun and Games: Second International Conference, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, October 20-21, 2008. Proceedings (pp. 170-181). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
- Small, S.A., 2001. Age-related memory decline: current concepts and future directions. Archives of neurology, 58(3), pp.360-364.
- Smith, C.D., Chebrolu, H., Wekstein, D.R., Schmitt, F.A., Jicha, G.A., Cooper, G. and Markesbery, W.R., 2007. Brain structural alterations before mild cognitive impairment. Neurology, 68(16), pp.1268-1273.
- Mazza, M., Marano, G., Traversi, G., Bria, P. and Mazza, S., 2011. Primary cerebral blood flow deficiency and Alzheimer’s disease: shadows and lights. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 23(3), pp.375-389.
- Guillozet, A.L., Weintraub, S., Mash, D.C. and Mesulam, M.M., 2003. Neurofibrillary tangles, amyloid, and memory in aging and mild cognitive impairment. Archives of neurology, 60(5), pp.729-736.
- Maki, P.M. and Thurston, R.C., 2020. Menopause and brain health: hormonal changes are only part of the story. Frontiers in neurology, 11, p.1074.
- Mander, B.A., Winer, J.R. and Walker, M.P., 2017. Sleep and human aging. Neuron, 94(1), pp.19-36.