How Computer Use Sharpens the Mind


There has long been a belief—held especially by older generations—that smartphone and computer use can dull the mind. In fact, the opposite is true. A study published in a recent issue of Intelligence found that people over 50 are cognitively healthier when they use more technology. Comparing two groups and controlling for gender or age, the group with more comfort with technology performed markedly better in cognition tests.

Seniors who utilize technology, especially smartphones and computers, will find that their minds are actually sharper, says new research. “Mental age” is lowered through the use of challenging, interesting technology, which can extend lives, improve memory, and boost mood.

How It Works

Not only does gameplay provide relaxation and a “brain break” that is vital for good learning habits, but it also relieves stress and creates opportunities for social interaction. Blowing off steam can be hard for some seniors, especially with limited time, mobility, or financial resources, and technology can provide this easy-to-access recreation while also enhancing cognitive function.

But how does it scientifically increase function? By causing seniors to use their senses more acutely, solve problems in new ways, and promote hand-eye coordination, technology (especially computer programming, video gaming, and smartphone usage) allows the brain to work the way a muscle does. As it uses new neural connections or reuses ones already established, the brain protects (read: does not break down) those connections, meaning that more information can pass over that neural connection. That, plus blood flow to an active brain, means that cognitive function can be preserved, protected, and even improved.

Why Seniors Don’t Use Technology the Same as Youth

The time gap between generations often means that, while many seniors can use more basic computer and smartphone functions such as email or basic web browsing, they missed the boat on computer use as entertainment.

Some of this can be broken down to social expectations. Many action-based video games, for example, which increase visual acuity, are violent in nature or feature nudity or coarse language, all of which may offend or upset some seniors, who grew up with entertainment that featured milder content. This does not mean that they cannot participate, however. Seniors should look for games that are light-hearted or align with their comfort zones. The newest game may not be the best for them, either, as many new video games are pushing boundaries. Using the rating system for video games typically yields milder content, however—E for everyone, M for mature, etc.

Higher education staves off depression and can help seniors live longer, so it may be time for seniors to go back to school in some ways.

Not all, but certainly a portion of seniors who may have received a less-than-adequate education may find technology difficult to learn, since they were not able to reach higher levels of education that required the critical thinking skills that make computer use intuitive. Higher education staves off depression and can help seniors live longer, so it may be time for seniors to go back to school in some ways. Using educational games and apps may be best for seniors who were not able to access higher education, before moving on to more sophisticated games and functions on their computers or smartphones.

Technology, especially good technology, is often expensive. A new game console can run over $300, and many seniors living on a fixed income do not have that kind of money (plus $60 each for games!). A new laptop or desktop can run a similar price tag. Finding ways to save money when accessing technology is an important priority for many seniors, since the price is often a huge obstacle.

How to Help Keep the Brain Young

Engaging with technology sooner rather than later is best. Waiting until cognitive decline is being experienced may mean that the senior does not regain full function, so starting early using the brain in conjunction with technology can stave off cognitive difficulties in the future.

The play factor should not be ignored. A study from the University of Iowa found that middle aged and older adults who played video games for just ten hours were able to stave off cognitive decline—up to seven years’ worth. So if a person wants to keep his or her brain “young” (that is, keep it functioning the same as it did in younger years, rather than declining as most brains do when they age), playing video games for a few hours a week as a leisure activity helps. Action-based video games, according to a study presented at the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, help a person decipher fine detail, important in tasks such as editing or proofreading, writing, painting or graphic design, or similarly detail-oriented tasks. The study noted that it took about a month for young people to show signs of increased visual acuity, and it may take seniors slightly longer to see measurable improvements in these skills, but it is worth the wait. Real-time strategy games were found by Queen Mary University of London and University College London to increase cognitive function and real-time complex decision-making, something that can help seniors who are prone to confusion. Such games also help the player to think about multiple things at once and to solve complex problems, much like a war-craft strategy game.

There are also arcades and bar/restaurant video gaming cafes that allow for more open socialization around gameplay.

It is best for seniors to keep it fun! Interacting with technology does not need to feel like work. Playing video games or using apps on a smartphone can be a social and fun experience. Setting up snacks and making a tournament of it is a great family activity; allowing younger generations to teach elders how to use technology is a way to create lasting bonds. There are also arcades and bar/restaurant video gaming cafes that allow for more open socialization around gameplay.

Seniors do well to take advantage of free or reduced-price resources. Community libraries often offer computer and internet use for free; local schools or universities will often allow community members to come into libraries or computer labs, or even take computer training classes for lowered prices. Seeking out these opportunities will make affording technology much easier.

There are phone apps that train the brain. While some of these are not exactly peer-reviewed ways to strengthen the brain, it cannot hurt to present the brain with tough puzzles or to practice memory games. In fact, Nadine Kaslow of Emory University (and president of the American Psychological Association) told CNN that apps can help improve cognitive function and promote a healthier mind. Apps such as Lumosity, Personal Zen, and Happify are recommended by CNN contributor Perry Santanachote as ways to make the brain stronger and even to feel happier.

Playing puzzle games on the computer, web-based or not, will also help seniors stay sharp. Solitaire, mahjongg, crossword puzzles, and Sudoku are all accessible for free through various online websites, and they also have communities around them such as web forums for discussion. This serves several purposes: playing the game keeps the mind sharp, and the forums help seniors create communities around activities they enjoy, which can stave off depression and other mental illnesses. Jim Miller (the “Savvy Senior” at the Capital Gazette in Baltimore) suggests to start, which has a small membership fee.

Seniors may also pactice web development. Studies such as one from the Center for Children and Technology at Bank Street College of Education (Pea and Kurkland, 1984) showed a link between cognitive improvement and computer programming. Web development and all its complexity introduces the brain to new problems, so particularly adept seniors will find that they can surpass even their grandchildren’s knowledge of technology by learning to code and create websites for fun (or for profit). A study from the Journal of Educational Computing Research in 1991 backed up the claim that programming increases cognitive ability in children. It might be a stretch to apply this to adults at first glance, but what teaches children new approaches to problem solving has at least a fighting chance at helping adults as they age.

It is best to choose technology on an individualized basis. An article by Jennifer Van Pelt published in Aging Well suggests that, since technology and specific skill-building programs work differently and can be differentiated by cost and implementation (auditory, for example, as opposed to visual memory training), not every product is good for every user. Doing research on a senior’s needs and what technology promotes which skills is vital to making technology really work.

The Caveat

There is a limit to how much computer and technology use can help. A study published in Computers in Human Behavior showed that those who used smartphones and computer searches most frequently displayed lower analytic and problem-solving skills. Relying on smartphones and computers to do all the thinking will actually hurt the brain, whereas some use and other brain-activating exercises such as puzzles, reading, and social experiences yield higher results.

…seniors who are prone to violence or aggression should avoid violent video games…

It should also be noted that the University of Iowa also found a link between video game violence and aggressive cognitive function. This means that seniors who are prone to violence or aggression should avoid violent video games, since it increases the likelihood of them acting and thinking violently and potentially harming others.

Further, not every scientific study agrees that video games and apps increase overall cognitive function. It is clear that some types of games or interactions with technology help develop or sharpen certain skills, but it is not clear if that comes at the cost of other skills. As such, seniors should not spend all of their time with technology; other important ways to keep the brain sharp should be used in conjunction with technology.



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