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Keep On Playing Those Mind Games

Researchers are seeking to identify and develop tools that can help slow the decline in cognitive functioning associated with aging. What's wrong with that?

Video games aren’t just kid stuff any more. It is a multibillion dollar industry that has branched out from entertainment into areas such as educational software. Now researchers are working on ways that video games might be used to boost memory and thinking skills in the elderly – and some people aren’t crazy about that.

According to the federal Administration on Aging, 72.1 million Americans will be over the age of 65 in the year 2030 – more than double the number of seniors in 2000 – making up 19 percent of the population. So why would someone take issue with research efforts aimed at helping older adults age gracefully? Politics.

In case you missed it, Senators McCain and Coburn released a list Aug. 3 ranking their alleged “100 worst stimulus projects.” One of those projects is the video game research being performed by NC State University and Georgia Tech, which is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

Specifically, the senators say the grant is financing “marketing video games to the elderly.” That’s playing games with the facts. The research is actually a two-phase initiative aimed at improving cognitive functioning in older adults. Cognitive functioning refers to memory, problem-solving, critical thinking and other mental skills.

In phase one, researchers will ascertain whether certain qualities that can be found in video games result in improved cognitive functioning in older adults. This work builds on established research.

In phase two, once the researchers have determined which qualities improve mental abilities, they will develop a set of guidelines that can be used to design a new class of video games, board games or other activities for older adults, as well as a prototype video game that follows those guidelines.

In short, they are seeking to identify and develop tools that can help slow the decline in cognitive functioning associated with aging. With the so-called “graying” of the U.S. population, it is hard to see how that’s wasteful. After all, we’ll all be facing the symptoms of aging one of these days.

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  1. I don’t “feel” that way. It’s a conclusion. I wanted to put my conclusions out there because I believe it is very important to have balance, especially when you bring politics into academia, and vice versa.

    The Lennon reference is clever, but intent behind the reference may not be.

  2. I agree, funding is vital to academic research, but without money, there should be no funding, and grad students should understand that. This is why I’m not in academia and in the private sector, but my heart still lies in academia. There is a delicate balance that should be adhered to between funding and the burden that funding produces on a population. This funding, though small, was a piece of a larger fund that tossed that balance aside.

    Again, I agree, it is money well spent, but not this money. It is a case where people can disagree, but how do you reason funding from debt? The title of the article and the content of the article are contrary. Sure, politicians play word games with their stances, which is why many politicians are quickly finding themselves out of a job this year, but the article doesn’t lead credence to the other side of a very reasonable opinion. So the title and the substance of the article is just another mind game, however unintentional.

  3. On the first point, the costs to run the study — while not insignificant — are not huge. You’re right, the salaries are small, but they are primarily funding research assistants — grad students, etc. Those sorts of positions are vital to the research field, and one can imagine that the grad students are spending the money (which was a key goal of the stimulus package).

    On your second point, research/R&D, I think it is a case where reasonable people can disagree. I think it is money well spent, you do not. I don’t think either of us is being unreasonable, we just have different opinions.

    Also, thanks for taking an interest in what we’re doing, and weighing in. We’d like to see a lot more discussion on The Abstract!

  4. Without additional money sources, the simple breakdown you provided does not hold water. That’s 35K per year for the 5 added jobs, with no further money for resources to run the study. Also, development of new products should come from the private sector or government grants that don’t exceed a balanced government budget. This money is coming from a stimulus fund that is pure debt and was touted as absolutely necessary to avoid an immediate economic collapse.

    Again, the study is useful and could produce products that would be good for an aging public in the long run, but it should not have been funded by the stimulus. Having received a physics and philosophy degree from NCSU, I know the benefits of government funding, but I, of good conscience, could not be a part of a study funded by this stimulus package.

    There is a fine line between Academic Research and Product R&D, and in my opinion, product R&D is risk and the burden of risk should be taken by those willing, with their own money; i.e. private sector funding. Using taxpayer debt (not even taxpayer money yet) to fund a study that may or may not produce any usable new products, is bordering too close to Product R&D, and is not what this stimulus should have been spent on.

  5. Good question Jeff! NC State is receiving approximately $700,000 from the grant, over the course of four years. That money is creating five jobs. Let’s break it down from there: $700,000 over four years comes out to $175,000 per year. Five jobs from $175,000 per year is actually pretty good — especially when you consider that it is also an investment in: A). the development of a new class of product, which will likely create additional investment and job creation opportunities; and B). the development of a product that will improve our quality of life as we age.

    Seems like a win/win/win, to me.

  6. Just because it is a good research endevor does not mean it is a good stimulus project. Where, exactly, is the immediate stimulus of the economy in this project?

  7. Go for it!

    At 73 I try to do various forms of research and investment letter reading, several hours a day.

    Sure would be nice to know if that helps and/or if there are more productive ways to try to keep the old brain going strong.