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.
Chasing dragons and exotic fruits
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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