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updated 8/18/2009 5:09:19 PM ET 2009-08-18T21:09:19

A new study says the average age of video-game players in the United States is 35, and oh, by the way: They're overweight and tend to be depressed.

Investigators from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University and Andrews University analyzed survey data from 552 adults in the Seattle-Tacoma area. The subjects ranged in age from 19 to 90, according to the study, published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The hypothesis was that video-game players have a higher body mass index — the measure of a person's weight in relation to their height — and "a greater number of poor mental health days" versus nonplayers, said Dr. James B. Weaver III of the CDC's National Center for Health Marketing. The hypothesis was correct, he said.

The findings, he said in the article, "differentiated adult video-game players from nonplayers. Video-game players also reported lower extraversion, consistent with research on adolescents that linked video-game playing to a sedentary lifestyle and overweight status, and to mental-health concerns."

The Seattle-Tacoma area was chosen for the study, researchers said, both because of its size as the 13th largest media market in the United States and because its Internet usage level is "the highest in the nation." The study was done in 2006; the results analyzed in 2008.

While the study helps "illuminate the health consequences of video-game playing," it is not conclusive, its researchers say, but rather serves to "reveal important patterns in health-related correlates of video-game playing and highlights avenues for future research."

Female video-game players reported greater incidents of depression and "lower health status" than women who do not play video games, researchers said, while male players reported a higher BMI and more Internet use time than nonplayers.

The findings "appear consistent with earlier research on adolescents that linked video game playing to a sedentary lifestyle and overweight status and mental health concerns," Weaver and other co-authors say in the article.

'Digital self-medication'?
One interpretation of the findings, researchers said, is that among women, video-game playing "may be a form of 'digital self-medication.' Evidence shows that women are effective at mood management through their media content choices, so some women may immerse themselves in cognitively engaging digital environments as a means of self-distraction; in short, they can literally 'take their minds off' their worries while playing a video game."

An implication of that, researchers said, is that "habitual use of video games as a coping response may provided a genesis for obsessive-compulsive video-game playing, if not video-game addiction." Calling all gamers!

Among men who play video games, compared to those who don't, "male video-game players spend more time using the Internet and rely more on Internet-community social support," researchers said. "They also tend to report higher BMI and lower extraversion.

"These findings illustrate that, among men, the association among sedentary behaviors, physical inactivity, and overweight status observed in children and young adults may extend into adulthood."

Both male and female video game players spend more time than nonplayers seeking friendship and support on the Internet, the study found, "a finding consistent with prior research pointing to the willingness of adult video-game enthusiasts to sacrifice real-world social activities to play video games."

The data, Weaver said, points to the need for "further research among adults to clarify how to use digital opportunities more effectively to promote health and prevent disease."

In a commentary in the same issue of the magazine, Dr. Brian A. Primack of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine agrees, and asks: "How do we simultaneously help the public steer away from imitation playlike activities, harness the potentially positive aspects of video games and keep in perspective the overall place of video games in our society?"

For children and adults, he writes, games that require physical exertion, such as "Hide and seek" and "Freeze tag" are "still probably what we need most."

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