Challenging yourself with a brain-teasing game for just two hours a week may help slow the degree of mental decay associated with the natural aging process, a new study finds.
Researchers at the University of Iowa in Iowa City conducted a study of 681 healthy individuals, ages 50 and older. They found that people who played 10 hours of a specially designed video game that focused on improving the speed and quality of mental processing abilities were able to delay the natural decline of a range of cognitive skills — in some cases, by up to seven years, said Fredric Wolinsky, a professor in the University of Iowa's College of Public Health and lead author of the new study.
"We've shown that 10 hours is enough to slow the decline by several years," Wolinsky told LiveScience. "We saw a range across all our tests from a minimum of a year-and-a-half all the way up to about six-and-a-half years of recovery or improvement. From just 10 to 14 hours of training, that's quite a lot of improvement." [10 Fun Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp]
Wolinsky and his colleagues randomly separated the participants into four groups, then divided them again into two categories: those ages 50 to 64, and those over 65.
Over the course of five to eight weeks, one group was given computerized crossword puzzles to complete, while the other three groups played a computer game called "Road Tour."
The game requires players to identify and match a picture of a vehicle (either a car or a truck) at the center of the screen with a series of road signs that are displayed in surrounding circles, one of which is a Route 66 road sign. The goal is to correctly identify the car type while also remembering the position of the Route 66 sign, which, in each level, is presented alongside a number of other incorrect, or "distractor," signs inside the other circles. The timed exercise is designed to test the player's mental processing speed.
"The game doesn't progress to the next level until you're performing the current level correct 75 percent of the time," Wolinsky explained. "The way we challenge people is that eventually we show the vehicle and signs for less time on the screen, and over time, we increase the number of distractor signs."
Widening the field of view
The Road Tour game also tests the player's field of view. As participants move to higher levels, the circles containing the road signs inch away from the center of the screen, moving closer to the edge of the monitor.
"This shows how far out in the periphery someone can take in information accurately," Wolinsky said. "As we age, our visual field starts to collapse in on us, so we start to have less and less peripheral vision, and we can't see it as well."
This may be one reason why the rate of motor vehicle accidents is higher among older adults, and why so many of these accidents occur at intersections, where drivers have to process information from multiple fields of view, the researchers said. [Inside the Brain: A Journey Through Time]
The study participants were assessed at the start of the experiment, at the end of the five- to eight-week period and then again a year later. The people who played the Road Tour game for at least 10 hours — either at the researchers' lab or in their own homes — showed about 70 percent improvement in their speed of mental processing.
Using a formula developed by the researchers, these participants also demonstrated at least three years of cognitive improvement when tested after one year, Wolinsky said.
Challenging the brain
"The findings clearly show that it is possible to improve older adults' cognitive functioning," said Jason Allaire, an associate professor in the department of psychology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who was not involved with the study. "It highlights the training approach and is focused on a lot of dividing attention and task-functioning, which is important to exercise in older adults."
Allaire is co-director of North Carolina State University's Gains Through Gaming Lab, which conducts extensive research on the health benefits of video games, though he said he considers Road Tour to be more of a computerized training approach than a traditional video game.
Still, the new research highlights the importance of flexing your brain, particularly as you age, Allaire said.
"Whether it's a specially manufactured game or something like "World of Warcraft," games are cognitively complex and require mental energy and abilities to play them," he said. "Whenever you do anything that requires mental energy, you're exercising your abilities — it's just like if you exercise your muscles, you get stronger."
Road Tour is commercially available through a company called Posit Science, though Wolinsky said he does not have a financial stake in product. Posit Science also offers a Web-based version of the game for a monthly fee.
The results of the new study were published Wednesday (May 1) in the journal PLOS ONE.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.