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Playing Games Helpful To Elderly Just As To Young Kids - Ifay F. Chang, Ph. D.

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In an earlier paper, Human Memory, Alzheimer's Disease and Drugs in Development, the human memory function and Alzheimer's Disease were discussed. It has been suggested that exercising brains can be beneficial to slowing down memory decay. Game playing is a natural way of exercising human brains.  This paper continues the discussion on how game playing can be beneficial to elderly people just as important as to young kids.

Playing Is An Extremely Important Element for Children Growing Up

Educators and child psychologists have long concluded playing games are extremely important for children's physical and mental development. No wonder the toy and game industry has been thriving on creating new toys and games for children year after year. Many research work have confirmed that the first few years in the lives of children bear the greatest consequences of child development in mental, social, neurological as well as physical aspect. The game and toy industry has recently put on more emphasis on educational games and toys which will induce children to develop mental capacity and social skills. For older children, emphasis has been placed on learning and absorbing knowledge. The following quotes clearly indicated the importance of play for children's brain development:

Brain research has taught us that a fetus can learn and remember his or her experience (stimuli) by exhibiting less and less reaction to the same stimuli such as sound and motion. As early as 6 months old, babies start to recognize familiar objects and faces and can remember certain actions which will bring rewards to them. By 8 months old, babies can develop recall memory about their experiences without visual cue. At 24 months old, babies can demonstrate recall verbally and some can show verbal recall with full sentences before 36 months old. The rich knowledge about brain development gained in the recent decade confirmed many empirical believes that parents bear the most responsibility of their off-springs' development. Devoting time to and playing with children will nurture them and pay great dividends in their future. So we are advised not to put children in an automatic swing or in front of a TV for long hours, instead we should read to them, sing to them and play games with them.   

From brain research, we are convinced that playing games can have a very positive effect on children's brain development. It is no surprise that the toy and game industry have always focused on young kids. Now let's ask: Can Game Playing Help Elderly Person to Maintain Their Brain Function?  We first review the memory functions and brain aging.

Memory Functions and Brain Aging

Based on brain studies, memory can be generally described as procedural (P.M.) versus declarative (D.M.) or short term memory (STM) versus long term memory (LTM) shown in the following table:

Procedural Memory



improved with repetition

nuclei of cerebellum & spinal chord (Lower Region)

Declarative Memory



related events

Cortex (higher brain)

Short Term Memory (STM)

A few seconds to several hours

less than seven piece of information

easily disrupted by distracting stimuli or brain 


changes involve just the way neurons function

Long Term Memory (LTM)

Long period to life time

association of stimuli

logical predisposition or continuous repetition

experiences charged with strong reinforcing component

involves plastic or permanent changes of group of neurons

STM can be easily disrupted whereas LTM is never lost, although sometimes there is a problem in retrieval. Same anatomical area of the brain is necessary for both STM and LTM; it is the neural mechanisms involved that are different. In memory function, acquisition takes only a few seconds but the changes to prevent disruption and decay requires hours even days. One additional note to the view of  STM vs LTM should be added is that there is the memory in behavior (recognition) which takes place immediately after acquisition and in advance of the changes (consolidation). As of today, by no means we have understood human brains completely but we have learned far more in recent decades than centuries before. The recent studies have neutralized or reversed many earlier theories about human brains and led to many new drug developments for treating brain diseases including A.D. and MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment). These new information have also influenced our thinking (and toy industry's) in selecting toys and games for our children.

In brain aging, the problems are impairment of cognitive function, loss of short term memory and inability to learn new information. Research studies have indicated that brain aging can be controlled, at least in part. Some of these research findings demonstrate a preventive effect, whereas others show a benefit in reversing the neurological impairment caused by normal aging or by an age-related condition including stroke. The latest data estimates that genetics is responsible for only one third of what determines our memory ability and brain health. Our daily experiences, lifestyle choices (nutrition, diet and stress), and basic overall brain fitness habits (brain exercises) dictate the other two-thirds. If we pay attention to it, we can have control over the speed at which our brains age or even improvement.

In another paper, Can Brain Stimulating Games Help Slow Down Aging?, it is pointed out that there is a definite link between sustained mental activity and staving off symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. The recent studies and discoveries lead to the conclusion that mental stimulation, or exerting our brains in various intellectual ways, may improve our memory performance, protect our brains from future decline, and could even lead to new brain cell growth. Just as work-out can develop your muscles, mental exercise can strengthen your brain. This has led to the author's attention to 'game playing which could be very important for everyone especially the elderly'. Doing crossword puzzles, solving brainteasers, playing mahjong, and/or even watching Jeopardy,  are doing mental aerobic exercises. Just like picking a fitness program to suit your physical condition, you need to select the right level of mental challenge so you will not lose interest or get frustrated. The purpose is to train within the limit of not straining our brains; and have fun at the same time.

Evidence that mental exercise helps prevent or postpone dementia 

Another study provides support for the idea that mentally demanding activities can help stave off dementia.  The study involved 469 people aged 75 and older. Over the course of the study, dementia developed in 124 of the participants (Alzheimer's disease in 61, vascular dementia in 30, mixed dementia in 25, and other types of dementia in 8). Those who participated at least twice weekly in reading, playing games (chess, checkers, backgammon or cards), playing musical instruments, and dancing were significantly less likely to develop dementia. Although the evidence on crossword puzzles was not quite statistically significant, those who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a much lower risk of dementia than those who did one puzzle a week. Most physical activities, like group exercise or team games, had no significant impact. The only exception - ballroom dancing - possibly occurred because of the mental demands of remembering dance steps, responding to music and coordinating with a partner. Although the study was careful to include only those who showed no signs of dementia at the start, it cannot be ruled out that people in very early, pre-clinical stages of dementia may be less likely to participate in mentally demanding activities.  
The study was published in the June 19 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. It seems clear that elderly people should develop interest in mentally stimulating hobbies such as playing games. One may say that if elderly people shy away from game playing deserves a closer observation whether they have developed dementia.     
Full reference
 of the above study.

Conclusions Drawn from Research Reports 

A web site, About Memory ( has summarized some research work and made the following conclusions:

Effects of mental exercise on cognitive function


Cognitive decline is less in those who engage more frequently in cognitively stimulating activities.
Activities that keep you actively searching for words (such as Scrammble, Scrabble and Crosswords) may help reduce those tip-of-the-tongue experiences where particular words cannot quite be recalled.
Cognitive training programs can reverse cognitive impairment in many seniors. 

These conclusions have motivated myself to engage more in game playing, also my recent interests in creating and publishing brain stimulating games. There are ample evidence pointing to the fact that game playing is just important to elderly people as to young kids. Personally, I am in favor of creating games for young kids and elderly people to play together, each derive benefits from the game playing. In the games I created I stress health, education and entertainment and I call them Headutainment Games. I usually make the playing rules to demand more brain activities. For example, the Scrammble game demands more brain activity compared to Scrabble since it has no waiting time and it requires players' full (100%) attention all the time. In the following, I have added a few more web sites about memory stimulation (tests) and fun games for young kids and adults, including a few games that I have invented. If I had convinced you to play any of these games especially with young kids it would be my greatest satisfaction. 

Games for Improving Memory and Brain Function

1. From NASA:

2. From Pat's Page:

3. Fun Game with Kids:

4. from Queendom:

5. Braino Scrammble, Magic Hundred and Cryptogramer Invented by Dr. Chang:

6. Test your Short Term Memory

7. Short Term Memory Test Pictures

8. Online Simon Says Game

9. Face Memory Test

Related articles 

What Are Schizophrenia, Olanzapine (Zyprexa) and Risperidone (Resperdal)

Human Memory,Alzheimer's Disease and Drugs in Development

Can Brain Stimulating Games Help Slow Down Aging?

Written by Ifay Chang, Ph.D. on Feb. 25, 2004

Dr. Chang is the co-founder of Medical World Search which offers an intelligent medical search engine, called MWSearch. MWSearch is an independent search service without affiliation with any healthcare organization or drug companies. Medical World Search ( ) has been offered for public use since 1996.

In early 90's, while working as a research scientist at IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, Dr. Chang led a group of researchers developing an advanced clinic information system with the purpose of supporting efficient and reliable healthcare practice. The system has been adopted by Kaiser Permanente and other healthcare organizations. Dr. Chang writes articles for MWSearch from time to time. Dr. Chang is a game hobbyist. MWSearch has encouraged him to publish the games he invented in the past.

This article is copyrighted but you may use it or reproduce it in part or in whole with proper acknowledgement made to the sources. The author can be reached at

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Dealing with memory failures in which you feel the information you want is "on the tip of my tongue"

Cognitive training can help prevent and even reverse cognitive decline

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