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Exercise video games can help people with dementia

12 April 2021

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 conducted at residential care centers De Wingerd and the University Psychiatric Center Z.org KU Leuven. This is the first time such a study has been conducted. Talk about cross-pollination between health, high-tech and creativity!

KU Leuven

As brain function gradually declines, people with dementia, including its most common form Alzheimer’s disease, lose their ability to plan and remember things. Their motor skills deteriorate and they show behavioural issues. Ultimately, those affected are no longer able to handle daily life alone and need comprehensive care. It is estimated that there are 194100 people with dementia in Belgium. Each year, 52100 new cases are diagnosed. To date, there is no available drug to cure this disease.

A clinical study carried out in Belgium by an international team of researchers from, among others, KU Leuven and ETH Zürich, has now suggested for the first time that cognitive motor training can improve the cognitive and physical skills of significantly impaired people with dementia.


In their study, the researchers used a so-called exergame, a type of video game that is used to exercise. They recruited 45 study participants, all residents of care homes De Wingerd and the University Psychiatric Center Z.org KU Leuven. The participants were 85 years old on average and experienced severe dementia symptoms.

The exergame consists of a screen and a floor panel with four fields that measure steps, weight displacement and balance. Dots on the screen indicate which of the field the player should tap. This enables them to train physical movement and cognitive function simultaneously. When players respond fast and correctly, the games become more challenging.

The participants were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group individually trained for fifteen minutes three times per week for a total period of eight weeks. A physical therapist designed an individual program for each participant, adapted to their functionality, cognition, and health status. The control group individually watched music videos of their choice. After the programme, the researchers compared the physical, cognitive and mental capacity of the participants to the same measurements at the start of the study.


Significant difference

The results show that training with the exergame enhanced cognitive skills, such as attention, concentration, memory and orientation. The participants also experienced significantly less symptoms of depression. Finally, the playful training also had a positive effect on their physical capabilities, such as reaction time. “This is encouraging, since the speed with which older people respond to impulses is critical to be able to avoid fall,” says Nathalie Swinnen of the Research Group for Adapted Physical Activity and Psychomotor Rehabilitation at KU Leuven.

Notably, the second, control group deteriorated further over the eight-week period. “We had expected that people with dementia would be more likely to deteriorate without the training,” adds Swinnen.

“Previous research has already shown that exercise can delay symptoms of dementia,” says KU Leuven Professor Davy Vancampfort. “However, it can be difficult to motivate people to exercise, especially on an ongoing basis. For the first time, this study suggests that targeted play can not only delay, but also reduce symptoms of dementia.”

Source: KU Leuven

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