Some intellectual activities are associated with better cognitive function among older adults, but the effects of playing games has been unclear. Researchers recently analyzed longitudinal data to investigate the association between playing games and cognitive function among people in their 70s.
The study sample was from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936. This is a group of 1,091 individuals born in 1936 who attended school in Scotland in June of 1947 (at about age 11). Participants completed four follow-up interviews between 2004 and 2017 at approximately age 70, 73, 76, and 79. Intelligence was measured at the beginning of the study and cognitive function was assessed during each follow-up interview through 14 tests that measured fluid intelligence (reasoning and problem-solving ability), processing speed, memory ability, and crystalized ability (previously acquired knowledge). Individuals were also asked how frequently they engaged in playing games, such as cards, chess, bingo, or crosswords. The researchers also considered other factors that might affect the results, including years of education, intelligence, social class, and other activities.
At ages 70 and 76, about one-third of the sample (33%) said that they played games every day or nearly every day. The researchers found that even when controlling for intelligence at age 11 and the other factors, playing more games was associated with higher cognitive function at age 70. Playing games more frequently between age 70 and 79 was associated with less decline in general cognitive function and memory. Increasing the frequency of game playing between age 70 and 76 was linked to less decline in processing speed.
The study was not a randomized controlled trial, so we can’t conclude that game playing caused the results. Still, the researchers were able to investigate changes in cognitive function over time, controlling for cognitive abilities at age 11, making an important contribution to the evidence base. Future studies are needed, including randomized controlled trials and studies that differentiate between different types of games. However, the results suggest that individuals may be able to protect cognitive functioning through an affordable and fun activity.
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Altshchul DM & Deary IJ. Playing analog games is associated with reduced declines in cognitive function: A 68-year longitudinal cohort study. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. (2019); November 18: 1-9).