New research examines the impact of non-digital games, such as board games and cards, on the cognitive ability of older adults.

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Older adults may benefit from starting to play games.

Games aren’t just fun; they can keep our minds agile and sharp. At least this seems to be the main takeaway of a host of recent studies that point to the cognitive benefits of video games.

For instance, some researchers have suggested that just 1 hour of gaming can improve attention, and some studies have shown that games that involve shooting, in particular, can improve cognition.

When it comes to older adults, the benefits of computer games seem to be even greater. From brain training apps that may prevent mild cognitive impairment to 3D video games that may reverse age-related cognitive decline, playing games on a computer seems to offer many benefits.

But what about analog games? Is it just computer games that benefit the brain health of older adults, or can non-digital games, such as cards, board games, or crossword puzzles, also affect cognition?

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom set out to investigate.

Drew Altschul, from the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, co-authored the new paper together with Professor Ian Deary, who is the director of the Edinburgh Lothian Birth Cohorts.

The study appears in The Journals of Gerontology.

Altschul and Deary examined 1,091 participants who were born in 1936 and whose data they accessed from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 — a study that evaluated the mental and cognitive capacities of its participants over a long period.

Researchers first assessed the participants’ cognitive function when they were 11 years old, and then later on at ages 70, 73, 76, and 79 using 14 standardized cognitive tests.

As part of the new study, the scientists asked the participants how often they played board games, cards, chess, bingo, or crosswords at ages 70 and 76.

As part of their statistical analysis, the researchers accounted for possible confounding factors, such as “early-life cognitive function, education, social class, sex, activity levels, and health issues.”

The analysis found that people who played more games in their 70s were more likely to maintain healthy cognitive function in their older years.

Specifically, those who reported playing more analog games in their 70s experienced less relative cognitive decline from the age of 11 until 70, and less cognitive decline between 70 and 79.

“These latest findings add to evidence that being more engaged in activities during the life course might be associated with better thinking skills in later life,” comments Altschul.

The co-author also thinks it is possible to interpret the results as a nudge to start playing some games in order to prevent cognitive decline.

For those in their 70s or beyond, another message seems to be that playing non-digital games may be a positive behavior in terms of reducing cognitive decline.”

Drew Altschul

Prof. Deary also comments on the significance of the results, echoing similar sentiments. “We and others are narrowing down the sorts of activities that might help to keep people sharp in older age,” he says.

“In our Lothian sample, it is not just general intellectual and social activity, it seems; it is something in this group of games that has this small but detectable association with better cognitive aging.”

The author also highlights directions for future research: “It would be good to find out if some of these games are more potent than others. We also point out that several other things are related to better cognitive aging, such as being physically fit and not smoking,” concludes Prof. Deary.