Games – who doesn’t love them? From our earliest years, we learn, socialize and expand our knowledge of the world by playing all kinds of games: card games, board games, word games, games of chance and many others.
Game-playing is a mentally stimulating activity, and evidence exists that such mentally-stimulating activities can have a positive impact on older adults suffering from dementia.
Let’s take a look at the many ways that games have been found to have value, making the lives of older adults with dementia more fun, engaging and healthy.
Evidence that game-playing is associated with healthier brains
In March 2017, Mayo Clinic researchers published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association linking mentally-stimulating activity with improved cognitive function in older adults. The study, which tracked 1,929 U.S. adults, aged 70 and older, over a period of four years, specifically looked at whether these activities had an impact on the onset of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a condition indicating an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
The study’s researchers observed that “engaging in mentally stimulating activities in late life was associated with a decreased risk of incident MCI. More specifically, playing games and engaging in craft activities, computer use, and social activities significantly reduced the risk of incident MCI.”
Several additional studies support the idea that game-playing is linked with healthier brains, including:
- A 2011 study of 488 older U.S. adults finding that participating in crossword puzzle games “was associated with delayed onset of memory decline in persons who developed dementia.”
- A 2014 study of 329 older U.S. adults that linked “participation in mentally stimulating activities, such as card games” with improved cognition and larger brain volume.
While these studies associate game-playing with better cognitive function, it’s important to note that researchers have yet to establish an actual cause-effect relationship between game-playing and reduced incidence of dementia.
The many benefits of gaming for older adults
While the question of whether playing games can actually ward off declining mental function is still being researched, what is certain is that older adults – including those suffering from dementia – can benefit from gaming for many reasons, including:
- A game for every mind. Games range from the very simple (for example, the classic “War” card game) to astoundingly complex (3D chess). Older adults in the first stages of Alzheimer’s may sometimes feel frustrated by complex games, but may greatly enjoy playing games that are easier to master. Just because a game is simple doesn’t mean that it’s not challenging, exciting and fun.
- Gaming’s social aspect. Many games, including bingo, poker and even cooperative computer game play, can bring people together in an active endeavor that encourages communication and friendship. Results from a 2002 study of elderly populations in Sweden, published on the website of U.S. National Library of Medicine, suggest that “stimulating activity, either mentally or socially oriented, may protect against dementia, indicating that both social interaction and intellectual stimulation may be relevant to preserving mental functioning in the elderly.”
Gaming with your loved one
Every person is different, and some older adults enjoy gaming more than others. However, it may be worthwhile for you to gently challenge your loved one to a friendly game because of gaming’s many potential benefits. If you do, here are some suggested tips:
- Do your homework. If you grew up with your loved one, you may already know which games he or she enjoys more than others. Older adults who are now in their 70s were kids or teenagers in the 1950s – the golden age of the TV game show. Ask your loved one which one he or she liked (or didn’t like), and see whether there’s a board-game or computer game that’s based on it. If so, consider bringing it on your next visit.
- Set realistic expectations. Every person – and every brain – is different, and just because studies associate gaming and better brain health does not mean that it will work its magic with your loved one. It’s best to keep your expectations modest to avoid disappointment.
- Focus on cooperative games. Many popular games involve competition, and while this can be fun, competitive games sometimes result in frustrating experiences for older adults with declining mental function. A cooperative game, however, in which you and your loved one team up to solve a challenge, aligns you both in a shared cause. A picture puzzle is an example of a cooperative game that you both may enjoy.
Games aren’t work or therapy (although they may have a therapeutic result). At times, even simple games can be less than fun for those with dementia. If it’s clear your loved one isn’t enjoying the experience, move on to something else. Remember that games are supposed to be fun.