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Study shows computer game for baby boomers may help prevent falls

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Computer games may help prevent falls in the elderly.

According to the CDC, every year one in every three adults age 65 and older falls. Some of these falls resulted in severe injuries including hip fractures and brain trauma. Fortunately, falls can be prevented. A new study out of the University of Illinois now shows that some specialized computer games can help gait and balance.

These specialized computer games provided cognitive training that slowed down the degradation of balance, as well as improving the participant’s gait while distracted. This in turn could reduce the chances for falls. Unfortunately, these games are highly specialized. The average computer game may not have the same results. There goes the plan for sharing junior’s Need for Speed or Grand Theft Auto with Grandpa.

There certainly is a need for interventions to help prevent falls. Statistically 95% of all hip fractures are caused by falls. If you are over 75 and fall, you are nearly five times more likely to be admitted to a long term skilled facility for a year or longer after that fall.

It is a common misconception to assume that ground level falls are due to a person’s frail physical health. This is part of the problem however not all of it. Walking and maneuvering objects requires mental dexterity as well. Being aware of your surroundings, predicting changes and spatial awareness requires keen mental abilities. This is where the specialized computer programs come into play.

"Participants in this study were on average 83 years old," Renae L. Smith-Ray said. "Because we know that degradation occurs with aging, in older participants we often consider interventions successful when they prevent or slow future decline."

Smith-Ray was the lead researcher for this study at the Center for Research on Health and Aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During the progress of her research, she discovered that some computer programs slowed the deterioration of balance and the walking speed.

This trial tested whether cognitive training over a period of 10 weeks improves balance and gait in older adults. The 51 participants, aged over 70, were assigned to either a computer program with cognitive training or a control program for measurement only. Anyone with dementia or a learning disability was excluded from the trial.

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Participants in the cognitive training group were given games that were developed to train for spatial and visual memory as well as quick thinking. These are the skills that are crucial for safety during ambulation.

For example a person will use many mental processes when walking down a crowded street. First you must identify a tripping hazard such as an uneven sidewalk. This has to be done at the same time as you are physically walking and blocking out the distraction of the dog barking and the children playing. Add in watching for passing cars, it makes for a busy brain.

The computer group met three times a week for hourly sessions. At the end of the 10 week study, the slowest walkers improved both walking speed and walking speed while distracted, according to results published in The Journals of Gerontology.

What does this mean for computer programs for the elderly? The jury is still out, but it appears we are on the right track. However, any good cognitive training program should be adaptable to the participant’s ability to continually improve. As the person improves the task should respond and become more challenging. This will allow for continual improvement and optimal outcomes.

In addition, there is evidence of a person’s "cognitive reserve”. That means that the individual’s history of regular social interaction and physical activity throughout their lifetime can also help to slow cognitive decline. It acts like a savings account that you draw from.

Take home message
Cognitive training appears to slow deterioration of balance and improves gait while distracted. This could be a promising intervention for fall prevention. However, the best way to maintain a healthy cognitive ability is to continually challenge your brain and build your “cognitive reserve”. Keep thinking, reading, questioning, socializing and living your life to the fullest.



J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci first published online November 5, 2013