Elderly people’s falling incidents cost millions to society every year. Maintaining their functional capacity ensures for aging people an active lifestyle and access to services.

Active physical exercising helps maintain functional capacity and improve the quality of life, but is it possible to foster one’s physical capacity also by playing computer games? Professor Sarianna Sipilä thinks so. With her research team she has been measuring, engaging in physical activity and computer playing more than 300 70–85-year-olds in Central Finland for 12 months.

The PASSWORD study funded by the Academy of Finland compares the effects of mere physical activity to those of a Physical exercise intervention and cognitive training on elderly people’s functional capacity. The combined effects of physical and cognitive training on walking performance and falling incidents have not been investigated before. The subjects were divided into two groups: One group participated in the physical exercise intervention only, whereas the other group was not only subjected to increased physical exercise but also played computer-based games that trained their cognitive functioning.

The elderly people in the physical exercise plus games group played the computer-based games 2–4 times a week, each session lasting for about 15–25 minutes. The games used in this study have been used successfully earlier in large research projects.

–        We know which areas of the brain the different games activate. By the games used in this study, such as memory games, we activated the brain areas pertaining to functional control, tells Professor Sipilä from the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences.

Functional control is needed, for instance, in observing the traffic and planning one’s own route when moving around outdoors. Cognitive capacity is also needed for so-called dual processing.

–        When an elderly person is walking and starts to talk, the person may halt, because he or she is not confident about his/her own walking in a busy environment. If the cognitive capacity has decreased, a person has to concentrate on the actual walking performance and the variables around so intensely that it makes walking slow down at least, if the person is asked a question. Hence, we are looking for different means so that, for example, walking and talking would be simultaneously possible also at an older age, Sipilä says.

As yet, no scientific peer-reviewed results of the study have been published, so Sipilä refrains from elaborating on the impacts of this study. She reveals, however, that the elderly participating in the study did enjoy attending the physical exercise group and also playing the games. Only about 7% of the subjects did quit during the year, although the researchers were prepared for a 15% loss rate.

–        I know that the elderly have set up small groups of their own and go to gym together. Moreover, we have been asked what online games one should play so that they would train the same areas as during the study, Sipilä says.

The subjects are not guided too much, however. The one-year research period is now over but the subjects will keep a diary on their falling incidents for another year so that the researchers can check whether the intervention has influenced the numbers. Peer-reviewed scientific articles can be expected from the research team in autumn 2019.


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