Scientists Just Gave Aging Gamers a Good Reason to Fire up the Wii

These days, our desperation to cheat old age has led us to try everything from teen blood transfusions to experimental (and illegal) gene therapy. A new study, however, reports that one key to beating the ravages of aging, at least on our brains, might already be hooked up to your living room TV.

In their efforts to investigate how to prevent the declining memory, deteriorating spatial awareness, and terrible concentration associated with old age, the team of European researchers behind the study looked to “exergame” consoles like the Nintendo Wii or Xbox Kinect, which have shown promise for improving cognitive health. In their paper, which they published on Wednesday in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, they report that, yes, playing games on these consoles does boost brain health as people get older.

What makes these games special, the researchers write, is that they combine a mental workout with physical movement. “Physically-active video games have, according to our research, greater impact on brain functioning than regular physical activity alone – suggesting that their benefits are more than just moving around,” said the University of Manchester’s Joseph Firth, an exercise researcher and co-author of the study in a statement.

Wii tennis: Good for aging bodies and brains, say researchers.

In the study — the field’s most most most comprehensive yet — the researchers reviewed all of the existing literature on the cognitive benefits of exergames. In total, the 17 clinical trials covered the effects of gaming on 926 people, and together showed overwhelming evidence that playing these games regularly can improve brain function, notably in older adults and in people who had cognitive impairment, like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.

In particular, playing the games improved the parts of cognition involved in “executive functioning,” or behavioral control; in the paper and cognitive training, the researchers note that inhibitory control (managing attention and behavior) and cognitive flexibility (adapting thought patterns to new situations) appeared to benefit the most.

So, don’t be surprised when you find your future self locked in a war with your grandparents over whose turn it is to play Wii Tennis. Researchers have already pointed out that exergames are useful for boosting physical health — for one thing, they get the heart pumping much more than your typical sedentary PC or console — and now that they’ve been shown to improve brains that are in cognitive decline, seniors and aging gamers alike have all the more reason to kick it in front of the TV.