Virtual Pills: How Video Games Can Boost Senior Brain Fitness

That spoonful of medicine your doctor prescribes may soon include a tablet that isn’t your ordinary pill. Clinical trials are already underway with video games targeted at enhancing brain fitness in older adults. A year ago, a group led by Adam Gazzaley, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, conducted a study published in Nature that found that playing NeuroRacer (a specially developed driving game) increased brain fitness in senior citizens by slowing age-related cognitive decline and improving memory, attention, and the ability to multitask.

According to a Forbes report on the study, 46 seniors aged 60 to 85 underwent 12 hours of training over the course of a month; this training vastly improved their in-game performances. At the end of the study, participants were as adept as their challengers: several 20-somethings who had not played the game previously. More importantly, their enhanced skills could transfer to other cognitive activities that are known to diminish with age.

“The finding is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is,” Gazzaley told Electronics Newsweekly.

This improvement in brain fitness of older adults shows such promise that game maker Akili Interactive Labs is working with Gazzaley to test EVO, a tablet-based game designed on the iOS platform. One specific goal of the game — in which players explore foreign worlds and collect specimens, stars, and gems — is to help detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mental Agility Tablets

Brain fitness training on a tablet PC by seniors has also been shown to aid in keeping the aging mind sharp. A study published in The Gerontologist, conducted by a team from the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Dallas, found that the cognitive vitality of older adults between the ages of 60 and 90 who tried tablet computing showed some improved cognition, which could ward off age-related dementia.

Participants were divided into three groups, each committing to the study for 15 hours a week over the course of three months. The first group was trained extensively on iPads. The second group was engaged in “passive tasks requiring little new learning,” while the third group “had regular social interaction, but no active skill acquisition.” Cognitive tests before and after the experiment found that the iPad group enhanced their episodic memory and processing speed.

“At the time we planned this study, we weren’t sure we could improve cognition with iPad training. We are delighted the results turned out positively,” says Dr. Denise Park, senior author of the study. “Key to the study, however, is that regardless of whether iPad training improved cognition, we were equipping older people with lifetime skills to manage many aspects of the aging process, and that they would leave the study better equipped to face the process of aging.”

A Real Game Changer

Results of brain fitness studies like these are noteworthy because of what they imply about the impact of brain exercises on the ability of people to remain independent into old age. For approximately the last 20 years, scientists have known that the adult brain retains its learning capacity, but these research experiments utilizing video games and tablet computers reveal that older brains that have already begun the natural decline in cognitive skills may also be perfectly capable of improvement.

See also


Are you caring for an aging parent or loved one? At times, it can be stressful, but you are not on your own! Try our expert advice for managing family issues, keeping mom independent and more. more

Healthcare Pros

Healthcare Pros

Whether you’re a nurse, case worker, doctor or another healthcare professional, you know aging patients have unique needs. Explore our resources for working with this growing population. more



We all get older, but how you do it is up to you. We have articles and tools to help you live independently and enjoy life the way you want to, as well as other important topics as you age. more