Should physicians prescribe video games to elderly patients?

September 6, 2013

A recent study in the journal Nature that showed that playing a relatively simple car-racing video game helped seniors improve their memory, focus and multi-tasking skills is being hailed by some as a gamechanger. But does this mean that physicians should begin instructing elderly patients to play video games?

A recent study in the journal Nature that showed that playing a relatively simple car-racing video game helped seniors improve their memory, focus and multi-tasking skills is being hailed by some as a gamechanger.

Significantly, the improvements in cognitive functioning that video games sparked came not just while seniors were playing the game, but while they were performing other cognitive tasks that had nothing to do with the game.

"You can take older people who aren’t functioning well and make them cognitively younger through this training," MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller told the New York Times. "It's a very big deal."

Older gamers showed gains of about 100 milliseconds in the speed of their response to a test of working memory, whereas members of the control group experienced no such improvements. Gamers also improved on a test of sustained attention, where they had to remain vigilant and react quickly to a change on the screen, Wired reported.

So doctors should begin prescribing video games to senior patients, and then sit back and watch their patients' brain functions improve, right? Maybe someday, but not quite yet.

The new study that's been generating a lot of buzz - performed by brain scientists at the University of California, San Francisco and involving a game called NeuroRacer - isn't exactly the first time video game play has been correlated with the potential for improved brain health in the elderly.

For example, University of Iowa researchers earlier this year found that, for healthy patients aged 50 and older, 10 hours with a certain video game delayed declines in cognitive processing speed. As far back as 2009, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pledged to dedicate $8.5 million in grants to studying the effect video games having on a variety of conditions and skills - from Alzheimer's disease to driving.

But the key for elderly patients who want to use video games for cognitive improvement - and their doctors - is to realize that while many video games promise brain improvement, most of them have never been rigorously evaluated to determine whether that claim is true, Adam Gazzaley, lead author of the NeuroRacer study, told NPR.

The problem is that "many, many people" have sensed a market opportunity and gotten into the brain fitness business, so in most cases, it's unclear whether resulting products can bring about lasting cognitive change, or are simply an attempt to cash in on patients with legitimate health concerns, Mayo Clinic neuropsychologist Glenn Smith told Wired.

Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, put a finer point on it, in comments to Today's Geriatric Medicine: "This burgeoning industry is completely unregulated, and the claims can range from reasonable though untested to blatantly false. It is important for consumers to proceed with caution before buying into many of these product claims. There is no magic bullet solution for cognitive decline."

So the best approach for seniors concerned about cognitive decline is likely to follow the advice University of Michigan psychology professor David Meyer, who recommends a combination of physical activity and mental exercise - such as reading difficult books or solving tricky math problems, according to NPR.

 

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