Video games can be useful in slowing onslaught of dementia

Study finds dementia delay higher among ‘exergamers’ than those who just exercise

Exercise has a reputation for helping to keep older people healthy, but a new study has found that playing video games combined with expercise – so-called “exergaming” – could help in the fight to stave off dementia.

In a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers showed that while exercise may improve physical fitness, it cannot be recommended as a treatment to prevent or even slow the onslaught of dementia.

Nearly 47.5 million people across the world are estimated to have dementia and the view that exercise might counteract the decline in mental capacity has gained widespread popularity.

Oxford University studied nearly 500 people, with an average age of 77 years, in 15 regions across England who were randomly given either supervised exercise and support programmes, or normal elderly care.


The ones chosen for exercise took part in twice-weekly, 90-minute gym sessions for four months, along with a one-hour session each week under supervision.

Participants were tested a year later using a recognised Alzheimer’s disease assessment score. The exercise group were fitter, but had marginally higher Alzheimer’s disease assessment scores compared with the rest.

After allowing for potentially complicating factors, the Oxford researchers concluded cognitive impairment declined in both study groups over the 12-month period.

Daily tasks

The study found the exercise group did not experience any difference in the ability to perform daily living tasks or the number of falls, when compared with their non-exercising peers.

The authors said the study had shown people with mild to moderate dementia could engage in moderate to high-intensity exercise to improve their physical fitness. But the authors said the benefits “do not translate into improvements in cognitive impairment, activities in daily living, behaviour, or health related quality of life”.

In a second study on aging published by the academic journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, however, US researcher found improvements in certain complex thinking and memory skills among elderly video-game players.

Researchers at New York’s Union College found older adults with mild cognitive impairment – often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease – showed significant improvement after playing video games that require physical exercise.

Known as exergaming, it includes games such as the Nintendo Wii where players have to move while they are playing.

The results may encourage the adoption of exergaming as a way to slow the effects of mild cognitive impairment which is sometimes a stage between normal brain aging and dementia.

“It is promising data,” said Cay Anderson-Hanley, associate professor of psychology at Union College and the study’s lead author. “Exergaming is one more thing that could be added to the arsenal of tools to fight back against this cruel disease.”

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist