Nursing home residents with severe impairment due to dementia had significant cognitive and physical skill improvement after training regularly on a motivating fitness game known as Exergame, according to researchers from ETH Zürich, in Switzerland.

Previous studies in healthy elders without dementia have found that those who receive body and mind training simultaneously demonstrate better cognitive performance, leading to prevention of cognitive impairment, the investigators said. But it may be difficult to motivate dementia patients to undertake physical activity for extended periods, said Eling de Bruin, Ph.D.

ETH spin-off Dividat developed a customized training program using a screen with the Dividat Senso game software and a floor panel with four fields to measure steps, weight displacement and balance. The goal was to exercise body and mind together in a fun and engaging way, they said.

In a new study, 22 elderly participants with severe dementia played the game, completing a sequence of movements with their feet by following a pattern shown on the screen. The program ran for 15 minutes, three times weekly for eight weeks. Cognitive and physical data were measured and compared with performance at the beginning of the study and to the performance of participants in a control group, who were encouraged to listen to and watch music videos of their choice.

Significant improvements were recorded in the training group, including enhanced cognitive skills such as attention, concentration, memory and orientation, the researchers reported. In contrast, the 23 control group subjects deteriorated further over the eight-week period, deBruin and colleagues said. The fun element of the game helped to motivate the training subjects to practice regularly, de Bruin and colleagues wrote.

“These highly encouraging results are in line with the expectation that dementia patients are more likely to deteriorate without training,” de Bruin concluded. “For the first time, there’s hope that through targeted play we will be able not only to delay but also weaken the symptoms of dementia.”

Full findings were published in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy.