There are millions of people in the world who suffer from dementia. Around 180,000 of them are in the Netherlands alone. And that number is growing, given that it is mainly the elderly who are affected. There is no real effective medication yet. The medications that are available do not help all forms of dementia and do not work for all patients. But what can help is exercise or brain gymnastics. But what about a combination of the two?

That is exactly what the University Psychiatric Center at KU Leuven (Belgium) together with ETH Zurich (Switzerland) and residential care center De Wingerd have been studying. They have used a relatively simple video game where balls on a screen indicate where to kick with your feet. The results are very encouraging, according to the scientific publication in the journal Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy.

Exergame

The researchers used a so-called ‘exergame‘ to measure this. This basically entails a video game which also involves movement. They recruited 45 residents of the residential care centers De Wingerd and Zorg KU Leuven who were 85 years old on average. All participants had symptoms of severe dementia.

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The exergame comprises a screen and a panel on the ground with four sections on it. The device measures the player’s steps, shift of body weight and their balance. Dots on the screen indicate which section the player should step on. This allows them to train their physical and cognitive skills at the same time. The faster and better the players react, the more difficult the game becomes. It was designed by Dividat, a spin-off of ETH Zurich.

Two groups

The participants were randomly divided into two groups. Participants in the first group trained for 15 minutes three times a week for eight weeks. A physiotherapist designed a personalized program for each participant, adapted to their physical and cognitive abilities and state of health.

Participants in the control group watched music videos of their own choice. Afterwards, the researchers compared the participants’ motor, cognitive and mental abilities with the same measurements they had at the beginning of the study.

Less depressed

The results showed that the training improved the participants’ cognitive skills, such as their attention spans, concentration levels, memory and orientation abilities. They also experienced significantly fewer symptoms of depression.

Finally, the play-based training also had a positive effect on the physical skills of the participants, such as their reaction times. “This is encouraging, because the speed with which older people react to impulses is important for avoiding a fall,” says Nathalie Swinnen from KU Leuven.

The other group regressed

Remarkably, the second control group actually regressed further during the eight-week period. “We had admittedly expected that the participants who did not exercise would be more likely to regress,” Swinnen adds.

“Previous research had already shown that exercise can slow down the onset of dementia symptoms,” says KU Leuven professor Davy Vancampfort. “This study suggests for the first time that active video games can not only slow down the onset of dementia, but also alleviate its symptoms.”

The most common forms of dementia are Lewy Body dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Brain function progressively declines in both forms. As a result, people with dementia eventually lose the ability to plan and remember things. Their motor skills deteriorate and they exhibit behavioral problems. They can no longer manage their daily lives on their own and eventually require extensive care.

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About the author

Author profile picture Maurits Kuypers graduated as a macroeconomist from the University of Amsterdam, specialising in international work. He has been active as a journalist since 1997, first for 10 years on the editorial staff of Het Financieele Dagblad in Amsterdam, then as a freelance correspondent in Berlin and Central Europe. When it comes to technological innovations, he always has an eye for the financial feasibility of a project.