You could always give an elderly loved one a book of sudoku puzzles to keep his mind sharp. But new research suggests it might be more beneficial to get him to summon up his inner Night Elf Hunter and go on a quest. Researchers from North Carolina State University discovered that playing World of Warcraft, the hugely popular online role-playing game, can noticeably improve the cognitive functions of older adults. Here's what you should know:

What is World of Warcraft?
It's a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG, developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Players spend copious amounts of time developing self-created avatars — everything from warriors to hunters to warlocks — completing quests, vanquishing gigantic monsters, or fighting other players over the internet. WoW is the most popular MMORPG in the world, with 10.3 million subscribers as of December 2011.

What happened in the research?
The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, took a look at 39 adults between the ages of 60 and 77. In the beginning, the researchers established a baseline by giving all participants cognition tests measuring their vocabulary, spatial skills, memory, and ability to focus. One test group was taught how to play WoW and instructed to play the game an hour per day for two weeks, while another did not. Both groups were again tested after 14 days.

And what happened?
The group instructed to play WoW saw a "much greater increase" in cognitive functioning. But the results were partially dependant on the subject's baseline scores. "Among participants who scored well on baseline cognitive functioning tests, there was no significant improve after playing WoW — they were already doing great," said study co-author Anne McLaughlin. "But we saw a significant improvement in both spatial ability and focus for participants who scored low on the initial baseline tests."

Great! So I should grab Grandma a copy?
Well, the improvements are probably not specific to WoW; any game that includes "multitasking and switching between multiple cognitive abilities such as memory and spatial manipulations, and reasoning" should work, said the study's authors. And as more lifelong gamers age, says Josh Visser at CTV News, expect the gaming industry to begin catering more to a market of older adults. 

Sources: CTV News, Joystiq, My Health News Daily, TG Daily, Tom's Hardware