In a growing trend to harness the positive potential of technology for our aging population, researchers have created video games for older adults that take exercise and multitasking to new dimensions.
One study had people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, riding stationary bikes while playing video games, improving their memory and other complex cognitive functions.
Another team used interactive video games to improve people’s reflexes and quick-stepping to reduce risk of falls – another major problem with aging – and are following it up with a gambling-style approach to get players addicted to exercise.
Building on previous success improving cognitive health with interactive exergaming, Cay Anderson-Hanley from the University of Queensland recruited three groups of older adults with MCI.
For six months, two groups road along a scenic virtual reality bike path or chased dragons and collected coins on stationary bikes placed at several different sites and completed cognitive tests.
Their results were compared with another group that played video games on a laptop without pedalling, and a previous research cohort that rode stationary bikes without gaming.
Both the first two groups showed improvements in verbal memory, physical health and the brain’s executive functions – higher order cognitive abilities.
“Executive function is like the CEO of the brain. It is key to remaining independent in later life,” says Anderson-Hanley. “For example, it allows you to cook two things on the stove at once. It makes sure you don’t forget that you are boiling the water while also having something in the oven.”
The stepping game, “StepKinnection”, is a Wii-style program that gets players travelling the world collecting exotic fruits from 32 different countries by stepping quickly on the items as they appear. Repeating this action while gradually increasing speed and difficulty improves reflexes and balance.
The game turned out to a be popular way to get active, and players showed 17 per cent improvement in reflexes, ability to take quick steps and walking ability.
Encouraged by these findings, lead researcher Jaime Garcia, from the University of Technology in Sydney, is now linking a computerised Solitaire card game to physical activity to see if rewards for moving around encourage older adults to be more active.
Their activity levels are monitored with a Fitbit activity tracker and if they go for a walk they are given money that can be used to play Solitaire.
“In this approach, we are trying to make exercise one of the game mechanics. If you go for a walk, we give you money and that money can be used in the game,” Garcia told Australian Ageing Agenda.
If they want to play, they must exercise or miss out. And the more they walk, the more money they get to play, which Garcia hopes will get them addicted to the game.
It’s established that staying active is one of the cornerstones of preventing dementia, and that fast walking is linked to healthier aging. Even people who are virtually immobilised with dementia can benefit from personalised movement.
Image source: Cay Anderson-Hanley
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Some people will do anything to get out of doing exercise, and researchers are scrambling to oblige, showing physical health benefits – in mice and flies, that is – of isolated proteins that could potentially be taken in a pill.
Noting that a naturally occurring protein called Sestrin builds up in muscles after a heavy physical workout, scientists from the University of Michigan were curious to see if boosting Sestrin levels could produce the same health benefits without exercise.
They tested this in three groups of Drosophila flies, two of them bred either unable to produce Sestrin or saturated with it, and a normal group for comparison.
They were all put on a makeshift fly treadmill for three weeks.
“Flies can usually run around four to six hours at this point and the normal flies’ abilities improved over that period,” says researcher Jun Hee Lee.
But the flies without Sestrin showed no improvement with exercise, while those with maxed-out Sestrin levels showed superior abilities to the trained flies, even without working out – and exercising them didn’t increase their endurance.
They note studies with mice also found that Sestrin improved aerobic capacity, respiration and fat burning – all benefits associated with exercise.
Other researchers at Augusta University, US, targeted a different protein, myostatin, that inhibits muscle growth, testing lean and obese mice that couldn’t make the protein.
Both groups bulked up, but the obese mice had similar metabolic and heart health indicators to the lean mice, and better than obese mice that could produce myostatin.
“While much more research is needed, at this point myostatin appears to be a very promising pathway for protection against obesity-derived cardiometabolic dysfunction,” says researchers Joshua Butcher.
Assuming that you can extrapolate these findings to humans – which itself could be drawing a long bow – researcher and sports dietitian Karen Murphy, from the University of South Australia, expresses concern about replacing exercise with a pill.
“There are multitudes of benefits to physical activity beside burning muscle, like heart health, physical health, weight control, mental health and social interaction,” she says. Even cognitive decline can be buffered with exercise, as well as bone density.
And many other nutrients are essential for wellbeing and muscle mass.
“Most people consuming a balanced diet, with foods from all food groups in the right portions, will have little need for a supplement,” says Murphy.
“For some populations an added supplement that boosts muscle synthesis might help such as in elderly populations where muscle wasting is seen. However, to build muscle you also have to work the muscle.”
Essentially, for people who genuinely can’t exercise, there could be some benefits to pills – but they still can’t replace all the other benefits of moving your body.
Even incapacitated people with dementia can derive surprising benefits from personalised movement.
And in a world where people are moving less, getting active is more important than ever.
Middle-aged people who walk slowly age more quickly, according to new research, while fast walkers are physically and mentally younger.
The study, conducted in nearly 1,000 New Zealanders aged 45, found that slow walkers also had older looking faces – independently rated from photos – and smaller, older-looking brains.
People with the slowest gait performed more poorly on a range of physical tests including grip strength, balance, coordination and two-minute step tests and reported more physical limitations in their daily lives.
Rate of aging measures showed they had been growing old five years faster from the age of 26 than those with the fastest walking speed. Slow walkers had other signs of accelerated aging compared to fast walkers such as unhealthier lungs, teeth and immune systems.
Added to that, they had poorer neuropsychological functioning across a range of cognitive assessments including working memory, processing speed, verbal comprehension and perceptual reasoning.
Even more unexpected, the study found that walking speed at 45 years could be predicted by childhood cognitive performance on tests of intelligence, language and motor skills.
Participants, born in the 1970s, had taken part in the longitudinal Dunedin study since the age of three, providing regular tests of physical health and brain function as well as brain scans.
“This study found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age,” Professor Terrie Moffitt told the BBC.
The team said the results were “an amazing surprise”, and the first time walking speed earlier in life has been linked to premature aging.
Doctors often measure walking speed in older adults over 65 as an indicator of general health, as it is linked to muscle strength, lung function, balance, spine strength and vision.
These reflect the importance of mobility for remaining independent and retaining quality of life.
More seriously, slower gait in this age group has also been associated with poorer rehabilitation, greater incidence of diseases – including heart disease and dementia – and shorter life span.
“Doctors know that slow walkers in their 70s and 80s tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age,” Moffitt told Medical News Today.
A brisk walking pace is generally considered as 100 steps per minute, or around five kilometres per hour – but of course this is relative to people’s fitness levels.
A good guide is to walk faster than you would normally, at a pace that makes you breathe a bit harder and your heart beat faster.
When you get a little sweaty and out of breath, this is considered moderate-intensity activity, which has several known health benefits such as improving balance and coordination, and keeping heart, lungs and circulation healthy.
In turn, this lowers the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. It could also strengthen bones and muscles and help prevent osteoporosis, although a range of different activities are recommended for optimal benefits.
The key is to find enjoyable walking routes – alone or with a friend, partner or walking group if that’s more motivating – and ways to get active that are fun and enjoyable.
Just pick up the pace up a little.
High intensity interval training, which has established heart health benefits, could also help prevent cognitive decline and dementia in older adults.
A University of Queensland study has found that it may increase blood flow in the brain even more effectively than continuous exercise.
It could therefore help protect against the decreased circulation and blood vessel function that occur inevitably with aging, which increases risk of cognitive decline, heart disease and stroke.
Interval training involves short bouts of intense physical activity alternating with periods of rest – and it appears that both aspects contribute to the benefits.
“One of the key takeaways from the study,” says researcher Tom Bailey, “was that both the exercise and the rest period were important for increasing brain blood flow in older adults.”
The experiment compared young males with an average age of 25 years and older men aged around 69. They cycled continuously for 10 minutes followed by 10 minutes of rest or for one-minute bouts alternated with one minute’s rest.
Continuous exercise improved cerebral blood flow more than interval training in the younger men but not the older adults, in which both activities had a similar impact on brain blood circulation.
The overall blood flow was higher in both groups during the interval training when measuring the entire activity and rest periods, even though perceived exertion was lower than during the continuous cycling.
This is good news for older adults who struggle to maintain non-stop exercise. It’s also encouraging to note that, contrary to previous suggestions, the interval training did not cause spikes in blood pressure.
“The benefits of exercise on brain function are thought to be caused by the increase in blood flow and shear stress, the frictional force of blood along the lining of the arteries, which occurs during exercise,” Bailey explains, suggesting that the interval training may have increased the shear stress and allowed the blood vessels to adapt to interval training.
He adds that this research will help to optimise exercise programs to improve brain function but points out that the study was short term and more research needs to look at longer term outcomes.
Disturbingly low levels of activity around the world have sparked the World Health Organisation to recommend that governments take policy action to get people moving more.
They urge all adults – including people over 65 – to do at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, for at least 10 minutes at a time, a minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or a combination of both.
Mobility has numerous health benefits and helps older adults retain better health along with greater independence and quality of life. Aerobic exercise should be interspersed with strength training for optimal benefits to help avoid bone and muscle loss.