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Computer games help elderly stay fit

We thrive when body and mind are healthy – but many older people have limited opportunities to get out and exercise. Eling de Bruin is a physiotherapist conducting research into how exercise with computer games can lead to a healthier old age.

Eling de Bruin, foto Stefan ZimmermanWhat are you researching?

“Many of the physical and cognitive changes that take place as we age are affected by our behaviour and the extent to which we keep our body and mind healthy in various ways. My research involves developing reliable treatments in the form of computer games that include physical and cognitive training to counteract age-related illness. We are interested in both preventive treatments for healthy older people and treatments for patients diagnosed with age-related illnesses, such as dementia.”

Why computer games?

“There are a number of reasons for this. The elderly often have limited opportunities to exercise and train as they should because of ill health or a risk of harming themselves. But a game situation can be made safe so that, for example, the person playing doesn’t risk falling. The virtual environment is also flexible – it can easily be adapted so that each patient has the right kind of training and the right level of difficulty. Another reason is that playing computer games is fun – older people think so too. So it is not a hardship to train, but a pleasure. Finally, computer games are a simple, cost-efficient solution that can easily be scaled up to reach a very large number of people. Computer games that can prevent or delay dementia and other age-related illness can be extremely important for both public health and the economy.”

How much progress have you made?

“My group at ETH Zürich has shown, among other things, that the brain in older test subjects responds positively to training games, and that training in a virtual environment really can improve, for example, walking in a physical environment. But we are only at the beginning – many questions remain unanswered, such as how the tasks in the game should be designed to achieve the best results, and what the underlying biological mechanisms look like.”

Eling de Bruin

Professor of Physiotherapy at the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society

Eling de Bruin was born in Friesland, Northern Netherlands, 1963. He graduated in Physical Therapy in 1986 and earned his PhD in 1999 at VU University, Amsterdam, for work performed at ETH, Zürich, Switzerland. In 1999–2000 he taught Rehabilitation Studies at Health Polytechnic, Aarau, Switzerland. De Bruin returned to ETH in 2000 where he has continued his research, often in combination with part-time positions at other institutions of higher education, such as at the Sport Sciences Institute, Magglingen, Switzerland (2000–2004), the University Hospital Zürich (2004–2008) and Maastricht University, the Netherlands (2014–2018).

Eling de Bruin was appointed Professor of Physiotherapy at Karolinska Institutet on 1 January 2018.

Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in "From Cell to Society" 2018

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