KU Leuven: Active video games can help people with dementia

A combination of cognitive and movement training can improve brain function, mobility and symptoms of depression in people with dementia. That is the conclusion of an international study in residential care centers De Wingerd and the University Psychiatric Center Z.org KU Leuven. It is the first time such a study has been carried out.

In dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease as the most common form, brain function gradually declines. As a result, people with dementia eventually lose the ability to plan and remember things. Their motor skills deteriorate and they exhibit behavioral problems. Ultimately, they can no longer live their daily lives on their own and require extensive care. There are an estimated 194,100 people with dementia in Belgium. 52,100 new cases are diagnosed annually. There is currently no medication to cure this disease.

Clinical research by scientists from KU Leuven and ETH Zurich, among others, suggests for the first time that a combination of cognitive and motor training can improve the cognitive and physical skills of people severely limited by dementia.

To measure this, the researchers used a so-called ‘exergame’: a video game that also involves movement. They recruited 45 residents of residential care centers De Wingerd and Z.org KU Leuven who were on average 85 years old. All participants had symptoms of severe dementia.

The researchers used the Dividat Senso, a so-called exergame . The training improved the cognitive skills of the participants with dementia.
The exergame consists of a screen and a panel on the floor with four compartments on it. The device measures the steps, weight transfer and balance of the player. Dots on the screen indicate which space the player must step on. This way they can train their physical and cognitive skills at the same time. If the players react quickly and correctly, the game becomes more difficult.

The participants were randomly divided into two groups. The participants in the first group trained for 15 minutes three times a week for eight weeks. A physiotherapist designed an individual program for each participant, adapted to their physical and cognitive abilities and health status. Participants in the control group watched music videos of their choice. Afterwards, the researchers compared the participants’ motor, cognitive, and mental abilities using the same measurements at the start of the study.

Significant difference
The results, published in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy , show that the training improved the participants’ cognitive skills, such as their attention, concentration, memory and orientation. They also experienced significantly fewer symptoms of depression. Finally, the playful training also had a positive effect on the physical skills, such as reaction time, of the participants. “This is encouraging, because the speed with which the elderly respond to impulses is important to avoid a fall,” says Nathalie Swinnen of the Adapted Physical Activity and Psychomotor Rehabilitation Research Group at KU Leuven.

Remarkably, the second control group deteriorated further during the eight-week period. “We had indeed expected that the participants who did not train with dementia would be more likely to deteriorate,” adds Swinnen. “Previous research had already shown that exercise can slow down the symptoms of dementia,” says KU Leuven professor Davy Vancampfort. . “This study suggests for the first time that active video games can not only slow down the symptoms of dementia but also relieve them.”

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