Wii Sports Games Reduce Depression in Older Adults

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Older adults who suffer with depression can get relief when they play Wii sports games, according to the results of a new study. Researchers found that older adults suffering with subsyndromal depression (SSD) felt significantly better after playing “exergames,” video games that combine game play with exercise.

Many older adults experience depressive symptoms that do not meet the standard diagnostic criteria as set forth in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed), but do experience what is referred to as “subsyndromal depression.” A 2007 study from the University of Rochester Medical Center noted that people with SSD have greater symptoms and functional impairment than nondepressed individuals, but not as severe as those who have major or minor depression.

Researchers at the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine find that seniors who have SSD can experience a significant improvement in mood and mental health-related quality of life when they participate in exergames.

SSD is associated with significant suffering, functional limitations, and costly medical services. Although it is well known that exercise can help relieve depressive symptoms, very few older adults are able or desire to participate in the recommended amount of physical activity.

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“Older adults with depression may be at particular risk for diminished enjoyment of physical activity,” says Dilip V. Jeste, MD, who headed the study and who is director of the UC San Diego Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging. As a result, he noted, they are more likely to stop participating in exercise programs prematurely.

But what happens when you combine video games and physical activity for older adults? Jeste and his team enrolled 19 participants with SSD who ranged in age from 63 to 94. All the subjects played an exergame on the Nintendo Wii video game system during 35-minute sessions three times a week.

The older adults selected one of the five Nintendo Wii sports games to play: tennis, bowling, baseball, golf, or boxing. The games utilize a wireless device with motion-sensing capabilities that participants wear during the exergames. The seniors used their arm and body movements to simulate the actions involved in playing the sport they chose, such as swinging the Wii remote like a bowling ball.

The participants reported a great deal of satisfaction with the exergames, and more than one-third of the older adults had a 50 percent or greater reduction in their depressive symptoms. Many of the seniors expressed a significant improvement in their mental health quality of life, and they said they felt challenged and saw progress in their “sport.”

Jeste noted that because the older adults experienced improvement in depression and great satisfaction with the Wii Sports games, participation “may lead to sustained exercise in older adults.” He emphasized that the study was limited in size and should be reproduced using larger samples and control groups. Jeste also cautioned that exergames are associated with some risks of injury and should be practiced with much care.

SOURCES:
Lyness JM et al. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2007 Mar; 15(3): 214-23
University of California, San Diego release, Feb. 25, 2010

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