Based on growing scientific evidence, certain types of game-playing is increasingly being viewed as calisthenics for the brain that can especially be useful for seniors at risk of memory loss, dementia and various vision problems.
Makers of computer-based and online programs aimed at the elderly have been growing, while Japanese giant Nintendo has sold over 8.6 million copies, including 1.4 million in the United States, of its Brain Age programs for its DS game console.
Nintendo says it makes no specific health claims for Brain Age games, but that the programs, which were developed by Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima and include tasks in memory, math, reading and even music, are "challenging exercises to get users' brains pumping."
The company says the games are designed to stimulate the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, which helps apply stored knowledge to everyday skills.
"The games help you focus and improve your memory skills," says Lynn Lipton, a 67-year-old grandmother from Poughkeepsie, New York, who was given a console and games by Nintendo after participating in the company's "coolest grandparent" contest.
Lipton said that she had started "to lose some of my multiplication tables" before playing Brain Age games.
"I just had stopped doing math in my head," she said, adding that the games appear to help keep her mind sharper.
Andrew Carle, an assistant professor at George Mason University in a program focusing on assisted living and retirement, said many in the baby-boom generation "think about exercising their brains and staying intellectually active."
Carle, who also serves as a spokesman for Nintendo, said he believes programs like Brain Age can be useful for the elderly.
"While these products are new, the science is not new," he said. "We know empirically that just as you can exercise your body you can exercise your brain. We know the brain has plasticity, that you can build up the neurons and circuitry in your brain to regain functions."
Carle said there is growing demand in retirement communities for these kinds of activities to help seniors keep their mind and senses sharp.
"Some call them games, but if people can sharpen their visual skills, their reaction time, maybe they can keep driving their own cars a little longer, and that's life-changing for them."
C. Shawn Green, a doctoral researcher at the Brain and Vision Lab at the University of Rochester, said his studies show people who play video games have sharper visual skills that may help in everyday tasks such as driving.
"It would suggest (that video game playing) improves the skills you need in driving that are diminished in the elderly," he said.
But Green said he was "a bit more cautious" than video game makers in terms of prescribing the games as a means of averting mental or visual deterioration.
"You're going to get better" at the specific game skills, he said, "but the question is "does it apply broadly, do you get better at things that are important to you?"
Michael Scanlon, a former Stanford University neuroscience researcher and co-founder of the "brain training" website Lumosity, said research shows that mental and visual skills can be sharpened.
Scanlon said the site offers "exercises to improve our abilities, while borrowing heavily from the video gaming world to make them fun."
The site, which offers a "10-minute daily brain workout," was conceived for older adults at risk of Alzheimer's disease or memory impairment, but developers decided that all ages may benefit.
"People who trained on the exercises had better memory and attention," Scanlon said, adding that this might be useful for students preparing for exams or others trying to build up their brain power.
The games and exercises from Nintendo, Lumosity and others aim to improve cognitive skills, brain processing speed and memory. Some will require fast arithmetic, navigating through areas while remembering certain hazards.
Scanlon said the games complement other activities such as crossword puzzles.
"A crossword puzzle will be helpful in verbal reasoning and verbal fluency but it's unlikely to have an impact on your memory," he said.
Lumosity seeks individual Internet users for subscriptions, while other companies such as Posit Science Corp. offer software targeted at retirement communities.
Posit Science recently signed a contract with long-term care insurer Penn Treaty to use the software "to promote brain fitness" and help delay the onset of dementia.
"Scientific evidence convinced us that the Brain Fitness Program from Posit Science Corporation could really improve the cognitive abilities of many of our policyholders," said Stephen La Pierre, senior vice president of Penn Treaty.