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Pilot study finds ‘exergaming’ may improve dementia symptoms

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New research hails the benefits of ‘exergaming’ for a small group of people living with dementia. Ralph Orlowski/WWW.WII-SENIOREN.DE/Getty Images
  • Dementia is a condition that affects memory, cognitive and behavioral function, and daily living, primarily in older adults.
  • Currently, there are limited treatment options for dementia, although many clinical trials are underway.
  • In a pilot study, researchers used exergaming, which combines exercise and video gaming, to train a group of older adults with dementia living in long-term care facilities.
  • The researchers found that exergame training improved lower extremity and cognitive functioning, step reaction time, and symptoms of depression in this group.

Worldwide, approximately 50 million people have some form of dementia. This condition can cause a reduction in cognitive function, memory, and the ability to perform daily activities.

Although dementia primarily affects older adults, it is not a normal part of the aging process.

Currently, there is no known cure for the condition. However, clinical trials are underway to investigate drug development, as well as nonpharmaceutical and care-related interventions.

As there are few treatment options, Belgium researchers, in collaboration with Eling D. de Bruin of ETH Zurich, investigated whether exergaming, an activity that combines fun exercise with cognitive training, could improve dementia symptoms in people with the condition.

For the study, scientists used Dividat Senso, an exergame that Dividat — a spin-off company of ETH Zurich — developed.

In 2015, ETH Zurich researchers found that older people who engaged in training that included physical and cognitive exercises demonstrated improved cognitive performance and executive function. However, the study was limited because it only involved healthy individuals.

Therefore, scientists wanted to expand on these earlier findings by including people with dementia.

Their latest study appears in the journal Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy.

The researchers recruited 45 participants with severe dementia symptoms from two Belgian long-term care facilities to begin the randomized control trial. The average age of the participants was 85 years.

They divided the participants into two groups and then assessed them all using a battery of tests to determine baseline functioning. The team repeated these tests after the completion of the trial.

One group performed exercise sessions with the Dividat Senso machine for 15 minutes, three times a week for 8 weeks, while the other group watched music videos of their choosing.

The Dividat Senso is an exercise machine that consists of a screen and a floor platform with four lighted fields that are sensitive to pressure. The sensors detect steps in four directions: left, right, top, and bottom.

As participants see patterns appear on the screen, they attempt to duplicate that sequence on the platform with their feet.

The machine automatically adjusts to accommodate the participant’s ability and measures steps, weight displacement, and balance.

The results showed that the participants who engaged in the exergame had enhanced gait speed, cognitive function, mobility, balance, and step reaction time. They also saw improvements in leg function and depression symptoms.

The researchers suggest that the enhanced reaction time and leg function may improve the ability of older adults to feel and react to situations that lead to falls.

Conversely, the cognitive ability and reaction time of the participants who watched music videos continued to decline.

“For the first time, there’s hope that through targeted play, we will be able not only to delay but also weaken the symptoms of dementia.”

– Eling D. de Bruin

Due to the small sample size in their study, the researchers indicate the need for more extensive trials comparing exergaming with other forms of exercise, such as aerobic exercise, to confirm the findings.

They also say that the results are not generalizable to a broader population because the participants only included individuals living in two long-term facilities in Belgium.

Also, women accounted for more than three-quarters of the participants, and the scientists did not control for dementia-related medication use. Additionally, the team has not carried out a long-term follow-up with the participants to determine whether the benefits have lasted.

Lastly, an employee of ETH Zurich was involved in the study, which used an exergaming device belonging to its spin-off company.

The team plans to carry out further studies involving individuals with mild cognitive impairment, an early indicator of dementia, to investigate whether exergaming could help prevent the symptoms of dementia from worsening.

They would also like to use MRI scans to determine whether this type of training changes parts of the brain responsible for the cognitive and physical improvement that they observed in this pilot study.

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