Constitutional Health Network:
Do This Every Day to Keep Your Brain Fit
If you've never played a video game, now is the time to start. 
 
New research shows that gaming not only helps improve your focus and build your memory, it actually makes your brain grow new cells. Specifically, new cells in the hippocampus. This is the area where memories are formed. It's the first part of the brain to be affected by dementia. So while DARPA is busily at work on a drug which grows new cells in the hippocampus, the solution to the aging brain may be already be right at your fingertips. Literally. 
 
We've talked about video games before. I know many of us are biased against playing games — there's a strong feeling that they're a "waste of time." The newest research suggests that we should seriously reconsider. It underscores what earlier studies have already found, and hints that video games may be one of the best things you can do to stave off dementia. 

Play a game, build your brain

We've known for a long time that video games improve a lot of brain functions. They develop eye-hand coordination. They improve reaction time and logic skills. Games teach us to solve problems creatively. And there's no doubt that they can have a big impact on memory and focus. Back in 2013 a study showed that playing games just a half hour per day caused new neurons to grow in different parts of the brain, particularly the hippocampus. 
 
Many video games have an effect on the brain, from simple "match three" puzzles like Bejeweled to intricate "first-person shooters" like Call of Duty. But research published this December suggests that 3-D video games may have the biggest effect of all. And you don't have to be a hard-core gamer to reap the benefits. 
 
The study looked at a group of college students who weren't into games. (Yes, kids who don't play games do still exist.) They were given a memory test at the beginning of the study — a test specifically intended to engage the hippocampus. Then they were split into two groups who played two different types of game. 
 
The first group played Angry Birds, a simple 2-D game that most people play on their smartphones. The second group played Super Mario 3-D, a more immersive but still "light" 3-D game. They played the game for 30 minutes each day for two weeks. Then they had their memories tested again. 
 
The group playing the 2-D game didn't show any improvement. This isn't terribly surprising, since college-age kids should be near the top of their game anyway, with little room for improvement. The 3-D group, however, did improve. In fact, they had a 12 percent improvement in memory performance. This may not sound too impressive on the surface, but 12 percent is about the same rate at which memory declines between ages 45 and 70. This suggests that videogames, and specifically 3-D games, can ward off cognitive decline. 

Want the most out of your brain? Mix "brain training" games with regular video games

Once researchers started looking at video games and memory, an explosion of "brain training" games hit the market. Research-backed "brain training" games can and do positively impact cognitive function. But the research shows that everyday videogames — the kind your kids and grandkids play every day — can magnify the effect. 
 
You'll also have even more fun.
 
We already know that exploring new environments in the real world — going new places, seeing new things — physically builds your brain. Researchers suggest that this is why 3-D games have a more profound effect. They're more complex than 2-D games. They contain a lot more information that needs to be processed. And because they're 3-D, our brain also has to process the spatial relationships between objects. All of this engages the brain to a greater degree than 2-D games. 
 

Welcome to the wide world of videogames

If you want to harness the power of videogames for your brain, here's what I suggest (assuming you've never played a game before): 
 
  • If you have kids or grandkids who play videogames, sit down and watch them for a while. Don't dismiss what they're doing as a waste of time. Ask them to explain what's going on, what the object of the game is, and how the game controller works. 
  • If it sounds — or looks — even remotely interesting, ask them to teach you how to play. Kids can be surprisingly patient when it comes to teaching "newbies," and they'll probably be thrilled that you're interested. 
  • Visit a big-box videogame store like GameStop. Talk to the sales clerks — they're incredibly knowledgeable. Tell them you'd like to try videogames. Have a real conversation — tell them what your interests are in real life, what you like and dislike, and see what kind of games they suggest. 
  • Test-drive some games. Game stores — and the game departments of other stores — usually have demo consoles where you can try many games before you buy them. If you don't know how to begin, ask someone. Don't worry that you'll look silly — gamers love to see new people give it a try. 
  • If there's not already a game console in your house, look into borrowing one or renting one before you buy your own. The different brands of game consoles — the machines that actually run the games — are very different, and one may suit you much better than another. 
  • Try a "family" game first. Super Mario 3-D is a great example. They're more casual, and easier to master for new players. 
  • Try before you buy. You don't have to spend big bucks to buy a game. You can rent games from most movie-rental places, including RedBox DVD kiosks.
 
Give videogames a shot. You wouldn't consider exercising your body for 30 minutes per day a waste of time. Exercising your brain for 30 minutes is just as beneficial — and a lot more fun. 
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