Video games can help seniors outplay 20-year-olds | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Let me thank all the people who participated in the nationwide blood pressure (BP) screening last month, held in collaboration with the Department of Health (DOH), which involved all its provincial health facilities in the country, as well as the Philippine Society of Hypertension, Philippine Heart Association and Philippine College of Physicians.

Initiated by the International Society of Hypertension (ISH) and World Hypertension League, the nationwide BP screening was part of a global survey on the prevalence of high BP in the world.

It was a rare privilege for the Philippines to be designated as one of the country-leaders for this project. Professor Neil Poulter, president of the London-based ISH, requested me to thank all the volunteer doctors, nurses, lay people and friends from the pharmaceutical and medical device industry (particularly LRI-Therapharma and Omron), who contributed their time, effort and resources to make it a success.

We were able to screen a total of 327,842 people nationwide, the biggest number ever for a single hypertension survey. We’re looking forward to the analysis of the local data which can help guide us and the DOH in BP-control programs.


In last week’s column, we mentioned that video games could help prevent the decline of brain function in senior citizens. A reader asked if this is really true or just fake news. I assure all our readers that this recommendation is science-based and there are several well-conducted studies backing it up.

The brain is an amazing organ. Many elderly patients seem resigned to the belief that the brain deteriorates rapidly in one’s senior years and that there’s nothing science can do to reverse it. The truth is, one’s brain, no matter how old one is, remains constantly capable of learning new skills, which video-gaming can enhance.

Scientists term it neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons in the brain) and neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to develop new connections as a response to stimuli and changes).

The elderly may no longer be capable of neurogenesis but this is compensated for by enhanced neuroplasticity. The brain can adapt as one ages or even when one develops acute brain injuries or complications of hypertension and diabetes, such as strokes.

The essential stimulus for this is constant use by whatever means, and even one hour of playing video games three times a week for a month has been shown to help in enhancing neuroplasticity in seniors.

The old adage still rings true: “What you don’t use, you lose!” If we stop using our brain, particularly after retiring (or even at a younger age), we’ll likely lose some of its capacity to adapt and compensate.

Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco, published their study showing that video games may offset or even reverse the negative effects of aging. They attributed it to neuroplasticity, making the senior’s brain change functionally over time.

In this study, a 3D game called NeuroRacer was used on both young and old subjects up to their 80s. Although researchers found that multi-tasking abilities declined significantly with age, playing video games significantly improved the performance of seniors, which made them perform better than untrained 20-year-olds, that is, those who didn’t play the game previously.

In this game, players are supposed to steer a car along a winding road with their left hand. At the same time, they’re supposed to watch out for signs and shoot them down with a finger on their right hand.

Remarkable improvements

The researchers did baseline testing, then trained a group of 46 older adults between 60 and 85 on the game for 12 hours, spread over a one-month period (one hour three times a week). If the seniors’ performance improved, the difficulty level of the game was increased.

After four weeks, there was remarkable improvement in the seniors’ performance, such that they outperformed their much younger counterparts who didn’t train in the video game. The seniors stopped playing the video game after one month and were again tested after six months. The findings were amazing (and very encouraging to seniors). The seniors’ skills remained.

To measure objectively what was happening in the brains of both the seniors and young adult subjects in the study, the researchers measured the brain waves and they found enhanced activity or “boosts” in a key brain area that enables people to pursue their goals.

Surprisingly, there were even some areas, such as attention, concentration and memory tests, in which the seniors, as a group, performed better.

Scientists are doing similar studies among children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, adults with depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s, all of which are associated with cognitive or brain function problems.

Before this NeuroRacer research, there was another study involving 140 adults with an average age of 77. A few hours of video gaming a week not only improved their mental function, but also enhanced their moods and sense of well-being.

These studies don’t suggest that seniors should hole up at home and play video games all day or lose sleep at night. It’s just like a visit to one’s physical therapist for arthritis—just an hour, two to three times a week—which one can consider mental therapy or exercise.

Add this to other productive activities—including reading good books, exchanging ideas with friends and colleagues, maintaining an active social life, listening to Mozart and other classical music for 30 minutes a day—and there’s no limit to what a 70 or 80-year-old can think of doing.

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