Sleep, Stress, Videogames, and Memory

Want to remain adept at reasoning and continue recalling people, places, and events in your life well into your golden years? Better exercise your body as well as your mind while you’re younger, say NC State researchers. Studies by psychology professors in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences have found links between various health factors and the cognitive performance of older adults. “The brain doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” Dr. Jason Allaire says. “Factors that adversely affect other systems in the body often diminish cognitive functioning as well.”

High blood pressure and lack of sleep are two such factors, according to Dr. Alyssa Gamaldo, a former student of Allaire’s who earned her Ph.D. from NC State in May and now works at the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Because her sister is a sleep researcher, Gamaldo was curious to find if there was any connection between sleep and memory. She tapped into data collected for the Baltimore Study of Black Aging, a longitudinal study led by Allaire and a Duke University professor, and found that seniors who reported having trouble falling asleep performed worse on cognitive tests than those who slept soundly. “Sleep re-energizes the body and helps the mind consolidate memory,” she says. “So a lack of sleep or disrupted sleep can easily affect your ability to function the next day.”

In a separate study, Gamaldo examined data from a group of older adults who, for two months, took daily short-term memory and problem-solving tests and measured their blood pressure every morning and afternoon. People who already exhibited high blood pressure performed poorly on the tests when their pressure spiked. Elevated blood pressure didn’t adversely affect the mental agility of those who weren’t hypertensive, however. “Stressful situations make it more difficult for some people to think clearly,” Gamaldo says. “It’s not clear why people with hypertension have a harder time than others processing information under stress.”

“Older adults tune out irrelevant information, while younger people try to integrate every detail.”

Dr. Shevaun Neupert, who studies older adults’ responses to stress, says they routinely forget more when under stress. This is especially true if one has had an argument or experienced some other setback to an interpersonal relationship. Neupert, an assistant professor of psychology, is comparing her findings with studies on younger adults to determine if the stress-memory relationship is true for all ages or is more pronounced among seniors. “We can avoid some stress in our daily lives, but not all,” she says. “Recognizing that it could cause problems for older adults will help us develop coping mechanisms and support systems for them.”

The NIA wants to find ways to maximize older adults’ ability to live independently, so Dr. Tom Hess has been examining seniors’ judgment and decision-making skills. The psychology professor has found that, while seniors’ cognitive abilities decline, their base of knowledge remains intact. So they usually choose to focus their mental energies on tasks and information that they deem most important. “Older adults tune out irrelevant information,” he says, “while younger people try to integrate every detail.”

“The brain doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Factors that adversely affect other systems in the body often diminish cognitive functioning as well.”

In spite of such “selective engagement,” complex situations remain especially challenging to seniors, Hess says. He cites as an example the recent addition of prescription drugs to Medicare coverage. People were given more than 50 plans to choose from, he says, and most were so overwhelmed by the information that they delayed making a decision and often failed to choose the best plan for their circumstances. Under an NIA grant, Hess is studying how older adults search information in making decisions. He monitors their heart rates as they pore over details and is looking for patterns in the sequence they use to go through information. “We want to identify things we can adjust,” he says. “Should we limit alternatives? Can we put information into context so they understand its impact on their daily lives?”

Seniors’ ability to handle daily chores like understanding nutrition labels or a monthly credit card statement has been Allaire’s research focus. The associate professor of psychology has developed a test to gauge memory and
problem-solving skills on such tasks, which he says are better reflections of their ability to function in everyday life than more abstract cognitive tests. His tests have shown stress, mood, and other health factors affect older adults’ ability to function from one day to the next, so he advocates more comprehensive testing of people believed to suffer from a cognitive impairment. “One day is not an accurate picture of ability,” Allaire says. “The brain is very dynamic, and it’s pretty naïve to base treatment on a snapshot.”

Allaire and Dr. Anne McLaughlin are now using Nintendo Wii games to determine how best to improve seniors’ daily functioning. “Many studies have shown that video games increase cognitive abilities, but no one has determined the reason for that,” says McLaughlin, an assistant professor of psychology. In the groundbreaking $1.2 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation with federal economic stimulus money, the researchers vary the difficulty level of a game and have some players teamed with partners while others go it alone. After a few hours of gaming, they test players’ memory and reasoning. McLaughlin says the ultimate goal is to build a prototype game loaded with factors that have demonstrated brain-boosting abilities. “There’s no guaranteed recipe yet for improving cognitive abilities,” she says, “but if we can zero in on a few aspects that can make a difference, it’s a start.”


In her graduate research at NC State, Dr. Alyssa Gamaldo found that people with hypertension perform poorly on memory and problem-solving tests when their blood pressure spikes.

Dr. Tom Hess, right, examines seniors’ judgment and decision-making skills and studies how they search information before making choices.

As part of a federal economic stimulus grant, Drs. Jason Allaire and Anne McLaughlin are using Nintendo Wii games to determine how best to improve cognitive function in older adults.

Playing video games such as electronic drums has been shown to increase seniors’ cognitive abilities. NC State researchers hope to determine which gaming aspects produce the most positive effects.