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Play Therapy Can Help Reduce Dementia Symptoms

Dec 29, 2022 | Adult Treatment, Helping a Loved One

Family members of those diagnosed with dementia will often experience their world turned upside down. They end up having to not only take care of their loved one but also learn how to deal with the diagnosis.

End-stage dementia leads to a total loss of memories and behavior, making them difficult to look after.  Simultaneously, their motor skills also deteriorate. Dementia patients can no longer handle daily life on their own and need extensive care.

In Switzerland alone, there are over 150,000 people who share this fate. This illness, as of current knowledge, is incurable, leaving millions to suffer in silence. There is often a constant search for solutions after the first symptoms appear.

Lately, researchers, led by Patrick Eggenberger, have been discovering many ways to keep our minds as sharp as possible. One new finding is that people who keep up both their body and their mind with regular exercise enjoy better cognitive performance and are more likely to prevent future difficulties. However, it’s important to note that they only conducted the study on healthy subjects.

A clinical study in Belgium has discovered that cognitive-motor training can significantly improve both physical and cognitive skills for people with dementia. A fitness game called “Exergame” developed by the ETH spin-off, Dividat, was used in the study.

“It has been suspected for some time that physical and cognitive training also has a positive effect on dementia,” explains Professor Eling de Bruin, who worked with Eggenberger at the Institute of Human Movement Sciences and Sport at ETH Zurich. It’s often difficult to coax dementia patients into activity, but if given the right push, they can be quite enthusiastic.

Eva van het Reve, a former junior researcher of ETH, and founder of Dividat, is implementing the feedback theory to change this. “We wanted to devise a customized training program that would improve the lives of older people,” says van het Reve. They developed fun exercises to help people with impairments stay active and Dividat Senso is a groundbreaking platform for participants.

The features of this system can be useful in game development. The system comprises a presentation and a floor panel, and there are four linked fields that measure steps, weight displacement, and balance. Participants would complete a series of movements on the screen with this game and train in both motor and cognitive skills. The system is stimulating for the participants, making it more rewarding.

An international group of researchers led by Nathalie Swinnen from KU Leuven – under the supervision of Professor de Bruin – analyzed the usage of AI among 45 Belgian participants aged 85 on average.

“The participants were divided into two groups on a random basis,” explains de Bruin. “The first group trained for 15 minutes with the Dividat Senso three times a week for eight weeks, while the second group listened to and watched music videos of their choice.” Participants in the first group in the study showed improved physical, cognitive, and mental ability at the end of an 8-week training program.

Following just eight weeks, the subjects in the first group reacted more quickly than those in the second group. How quickly older people respond to impulses affects their ability to carry out tasks.

These results offer hope for people with dementia and their relatives. Training with this machine did indeed enhance cognitive skills such as attention, concentration, memory, and orientation. In recent breakthroughs, they have seen targeted play help people living with dementia delay or weaken symptoms.

Various studies have shown that the type of training that a person engages in leads to both cognitive and physical improvement. Not only did the activities accelerate their reaction time and overall intelligence, but it also increased their physical health and aerobic capacity.

The research group led by de Bruin is currently working on replicating the results with people with mild cognitive impairment—a precursor to dementia. This study investigates the neural processes in the brain, which can lead to an increase in cognitive and physical function.


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