Seniors trade walkers for Wii

Video game day gets residents exercising bodies and minds

Barbara Foley was skeptical, at best, about trying video games.
“My grandchildren say, `It’s easy, Nana.’ But I never played,” said Foley, 85. “I’m old-fashioned.”
At the Briton House Retirement Residence yesterday, about 60 seniors gathered for a short workshop presented by Home Instead Senior Care, a provider of non-medical services, on keeping the mind sharp with video games.

With their walkers pushed aside and encouraging cheers from onlookers, three teams of seniors, including Foley – “I got nailed to do it” – tried Nintendo Wii bowling. Using a handheld remote, they took turns swinging their arms in a bowling motion, releasing a button on the remote, and watching on a large screen how their balls progressed toward the pins.

Strike! Foley hit it big.

“I liked it,” laughed the neophyte bowler, amazed at her success. “Kids today really know something.”

Then she and teammate Joanna Wilson, 83, giggled together about how they both bounced their balls.

The aging population is a lucrative potential market for the game industry. Last year Nintendo came out with Brain Age, geared to older consumers. Several seniors at the workshop tried the Brain Age word scramble and math problem games. They also played along with a video Jeopardy game.

Twenty-five per cent of people playing computer and video games are 50 years or older, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.

There’s evidence that people who use their brains tend not to get Alzheimer’s as much as those who don’t regularly exercise their grey matter, said Jack Diamond, scientific director of the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.

“It’s quite probable that the adage `use it or lose it’ applies to the brain,” he said.
But can video games boost the brain?

“If a game required you to think and come to a conclusion and then apply it, that would be good,” said Diamond.

Despite the popularity of video games, we don’t know what they do to our brains, said Jim Karle, a Ph.D psychology student at McMaster University. He compared the brainwaves of a group of adult regular video game players to a group of non-players. Electrical activity in the part of the brain involved in short-term memory storage seemed to be more pronounced in the gamers, he said. The next step will be to try to understand these memory differences.

Other scientists, said Karle, have found that video game players do better at processing their visual environment, keeping track of everything they see, such as traffic on a busy highway.
“You do 20 minutes of weight-bearing exercise for osteoporosis and 20 minutes of video game play to prevent decline in visual processing,” he said. “That’s obviously speculative. But wow, that would be cool.”

The Toronto Star
October 17, 2007
Nancy J. White
living reporter