People talk about old age as a second childhood, and they often mean this in a critical way. But that idea may be something we should cultivate, if we consider the mounting research which shows the importance of play and stimulation to an active and healthy old age.
A 2017 study recruited 33 people, ages 55 to 75, who were randomly assigned to three separate groups. Participants were instructed to play Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, take piano lessons (for the first time in their life) with the same frequency and in the same sequence, or not perform any task. The experiment lasted six months and was conducted in the participants’ homes, where the consoles and pianos, provided by West’s team, were installed.
The researchers evaluated the effects of the experiment at the beginning and at the end of the exercise, six months later, using two different measurements: cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure variations in the volume of gray matter. This enabled them to observe brain activity and any changes that were occurring.
According to the MRI test results, only the participants in the video-game cohort saw increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum. Their short-term memory also improved.
The tests also revealed gray matter increases in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and cerebellum of the participants who took piano lessons, whereas some degree of atrophy was noted in all three areas of the brain among those in the passive control group. So, if you’re in your 50’s or older you may want to try playing 3D platform games like Super Mario 64 to stave off mild cognitive impairment and perhaps even prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
A team from Rovaniemi Polytechnic in Finland followed 40 people aged between 65 and 81 over a three-month period while they regularly used swings, see-saws and climbing frames at the Santa Claus Sports Institute in Lapland. By the end of that time there were significant improvements in their balance, speed and co-ordination. Many of the participants also reported that they felt better mentally, and that they were empowered by their success in mastering the apparatus.
A study by scientists at the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) in 2005 has found that stimulating the bottom of the feet can have measurable health benefits too. The idea for this study came from seeing people in China walking on rough surfaces for their health. There was already anecdotal evidence of the health benefits of this (e.g. pain relief, sleep enhancement, improved physical and mental well-being), but this was the first scientific study to assess this.
Following a successful pilot study, the researchers studied 108 physically inactive people, living in the community, aged between 60 and 92. To simulate the uneven surface the researchers small to medium sizes synthetic river stones fixed randomly on a mat. This was known as a cobblestone mat. Participants were divided into an experimental group, the cobblestone mat walkers, and a control group that took part in conventional walking activities. Both groups walked for one hour, three times per week for 16 weeks, although the cobblestone mat walkers only spent 6 to 30 minutes actually walking on the mat.
At the end of sixteen weeks the study found that the cobblestone-walkers had “improved physical function [balance and mobility] and reduced blood pressure to a greater extent” than the conventional walkers. It has been suggested that at least some of these benefits are because the cobblestone walking stimulates acupoints on the feet. The results have been so encouraging that the Institute has now made the mats available for sale to the general public.
Falls and fear of falling can affect the quality of life of the elderly. In fact, some people enter institutional care solely because they are afraid that they might fall while living on their own. These studies have exciting implications for what can be done to keep the elderly from being traumatised by falls or living lives made unbearable by the fear of falling.
But it’s not only physical activity that’s important. Mental activity also brings measurable health benefits for seniors. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found that elderly people who did crossword puzzles four times a week had a risk of dementia that was 47% lower than among those who did the puzzles once a week.
The simple training exercise of catching a weighted medicine ball can improve balance and may help prevent falls in the elderly, according to research at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2015. The researchers found that not only can the elderly improve their ability to catch the ball, but they also improve at performing a task that was not part of the training. There was a transfer effect.
Small babies and children naturally seek out stimulation as a part of learning and exploring the world. People in their teens and twenties sometimes become dangerous thrill seekers. As we get older we tend to restrict the amount of input, choose what’s safe, seek out what we know, minimise stimulation. Those who look after the elderly will often seek (with the best of intentions) to cocoon their charges, giving them a regularised day with few surprises. But research is now showing that we should be challenging people well into their twilight years, encouraging them to stay active, to have fun – to play again like children for whom every day is a great adventure.