Keeping the brain nimble in older adulthood may be as simple as playing a video game, according to researchers who compared the thought-process benefits of crossword puzzles with a computer program that increased users' mental speed and agility.
Analysing 681 healthy people aged 50 and up, scientists found that those who played a "Road Tour" video game for at least 10 hours - which required them to identify "vehicles" among an ever-faster array - gained at least three years of cognitive (mental skill) improvement after one year. A group that received four additional hours of training with the game improved their thinking abilities by four years.
"The bad news about brain plasticity is that we start slowing down in our early 30s and it continues. The good news is, with the right kind of training programmes, we can regain what we've lost and maybe get people to higher levels," said study author Fredric Wolinsky, a professor of public health at the University of Iowa.
"It seems some remodelling of the brain is taking place, but we need to figure out exactly which parts of the brain are undergoing functional improvements," added Wolinsky, who has no financial stake in the video game used in the research.
Wolinsky and his team split participants into four groups, further separating them into sets of those 50 to 64 and those over 65. One group was given computerised crossword puzzles and the three other groups repeatedly used the Road Tour game.
The video game centers on quickly identifying a type of vehicle and matching its symbol with the correct road sign among a circular array of possibilities. The player must succeed three out of every four tries to advance to the next level, which speeds up the process and adds more distractions.
Participants who played the video game scored significantly higher than those in the crossword puzzle group on tests involving executive function such as concentration, agile shifting from one mental task to another, and information processing speed.
The mental improvement in the video game group ranged from 1.5 to nearly seven years compared to those doing crossword puzzles, the investigators found.
Wolinsky noted that many other brain-training games are available commercially, though few have scientific evidence to back up their cognitive improvement claims. Road Tour forces users to widen their field of vision in order to take in all the information required to succeed, he said.
"There's been considerable assumption that the visual field of view, the amount of area we take in, declines with age," he said.
"For people to visualise the centre and periphery requires them to shift their field of view to capture more information, and the training helps them be more successful at doing that. It's a retrainable skill."
An expert not involved with the new study called it "interesting and exciting".
Dr James Galvin, director of the Pearl Barlow Center for Memory Evaluation and Treatment at NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City, said that the study indicates that doctors should look more carefully at such brain-training programmes to determine how they can be used clinically.
"It's really interesting to be able to demonstrate that these more challenging kinds of tasks showed a significant benefit compared to crossword puzzles," said Galvin, also a professor of neurology and psychiatry.
"The nature of the brain is that even later in life, we can still remodel it. This suggests we have an opportunity to make a real impact on older adults in terms of their mental ability."