Exer-Gaming Seniors Have Lower Risk of Cognitive Decline

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Technology that can improve seniors’ physical and cognitive health has already hit the market—such as the CyberCycle—but there’s far more to come, if Microsoft’s recently-revealed IllumiRoom is any indication, and it could change the whole landscape of memory care.

With dementia cases projected to number as many as 100 million by 2050, researchers are seeking interventions to curb or prevent cognitive decline that are engaging to seniors.

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While exercise is shown to yield many health benefits, few older adults exercise, according to researchers in a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

However, combining exercise with video gaming and a competitive angle—something the CyberCycle does—can help motivate seniors to exercise, yielding both physical benefits and a decreased risk of cognitive impairments, new research suggests.

CyberCycles are specially-designed exercise bikes that include virtual-reality screens to simulate outdoor biking and racing. Bikes are equipped with handlebars on each side for steering, and “riders” can interact with the screen with a virtual track.

Health and wellness researchers for the CyberCycle study conducted a randomized clinical trial on 102 older adults from eight retirement communities to test the virtual reality-enhanced bike.

The researchers wanted to find out if stationary cycling with virtual reality tours could enhance executive function and clinical status more than traditional exercise. They also wanted to study whether exercise effort would explain improvement, and if brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF) would increase.

Older adults who used the CyberCycle achieved better cognitive function than traditional exercisers, for the same effort, the researchers found, and the 63 seniors who completed the study had a 23% relative risk reduction in clinical progression to mild cognitive impairment.

This suggests that simultaneous cognitive and physical exercise has greater potential for preventing cognitive decline, the researchers concluded.

Adding in the virtual component can take the monotony out of exercise, with an added possible benefit of brain stimulation, says Davis Park, Director of The Front Porch Center for Technology Innovation and Wellbeing (CTIW), a non-profit organization that looks for ways technology innovation can enhance the lives of seniors.

Two Southern California Front Porch communities recently wrapped up a seven-week pilot for the CyberCycle fitness program, with 16 residents participating.

Each community had its own bike, both of which were wirelessly connected to the Internet. Participants had separate log-ins to the bike to track results, such as heart rate, distance, calories burned, which were recorded on a back-end server.

Rather than study a change in cognitive ability, the Front Porch pilot tracked vital stats and found that the average speed of the riders increased 5% in the course of the pilot.

Rider efficiency also improved from week 1 to week 7, with 88% of the 16 participants either maintaining or improving their fitness level. Across all riders, efficiency improved an average of 20%.

An added value of the CyberCycle, Park says, is that along with being interactive, is also has a social networking aspect, introducing a competitive angle.

Riders can compete against others through a leaderboard component allowing participants to compare number of miles ridden, or calories burned, all throughout the entire CyberCycle community.

“We’ve learned, when we introduce new technologies, it has to be fun and engaging—especially to the point where they don’t feel it’s a health or wellness activity,” Park says. “Once you throw in those health and wellness words, it kind of turns people off.”

As healthcare becomes an increasingly big national issue, especially with the boomer population starting to retire and needing an adequate healthcare system, says Park, it becomes more important for technology to address the needs of the population.

The data and metrics the CyberCycle is able to track, such as heart rate and calories burned along with its cognitive components, may someday be “a lot more accessible” in terms of being able to give people a reading on how well they’re doing, he says.

The CyberCycle is an example of where technology is now when it comes to introducing virtual reality aspects to senior living, but newer technologies—such as Microsoft’s IllumiRoom—are constantly being developed.

Microsoft Research unveiled the IllumiRoom in January at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, although an actual product has not yet been released. The concept of the IllumiRoom is to augment the area surrounding a TV screen with projected visualizations to enhance the traditional entertainment experience.

The system uses Kinect for Windows and a projector to blur the lines between on-screen content and the surrounding environment, allowing views to combine virtual and physical worlds, says Microsoft. Capabilities will include the ability to change the appearance of the room, induce apparent motion, and extend the field of view.

While right now it’s being viewed mainly in light of its Xbox capabilities for the younger crowd, the concept has potential for older adults, too, if adaptive uses are developed for seniors who might benefit from additional visualizations and interaction beyond what’s available on the TV screen.

When it comes to memory care, especially, one possible application of the IllumiRoom could be to project an individualized scene or setting in a memory care resident’s room that could be familiar and soothing. Or, similar to the CyberCycle, the concept could be used to enhance a senior’s exercise experience with an amplified virtual reality component.

“Technology offers one of the biggest promises with the ability to leverage solutions, to find ways to have people take control over their own healthcare,” says Parks. “The more you’re able to be aware of how you’re doing health-wise, the more you’re able to self-intervene.”

Access the American Journal of Preventive Medicine study or watch a video about the IllumiRoom concept.

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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