When a parent or spouse is diagnosed with dementia, fun and games are far from most people’s minds. Believe it or not, a popular tabletop game can actually slow cognitive decline. It can give those coping with early-stage or mid-stage dementia an opportunity to thrive.
That game? Ping pong.
Ping pong (table tennis) has been called the world’s number one brain sport. It contributes to mental quickness while slowing the effects of age and disease on the mind. It’s also considered one of the best sports for older adults, offering a moderate cardio workout with low joint stress and low risk of injury.
People with dementia around the world are fighting their condition, keeping physically fit, and falling in love with a brand-new hobby – ping pong, at a time when finding new passions seem improbable.
Fighting Cognitive Decline Around the World
Heartwarming stories about the power of ping pong to fight neuro-cognitive decline come from all over the globe and across generations.
Norman Nicolson of Britain played ping pong in his younger years, but took up the sport again at the age of 79 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In a 2015 interview with the Huffington Post, Norman’s wife Alison said that ping pong offered Norman a way to stay active, engaged, and happy. “It gives him a great feeling of success, as well as the endorphin high of a good workout,” she said. Ping pong also offered benefits to her as a caregiver: “For me, table tennis provides a great respite, feet up, a cup of coffee, knowing he is safe and happy.”
Navin Kumar in Maryland (U.S.) originally started playing ping pong to stay physically fit despite a congenital heart disorder. When Navin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he turned to ping pong to fight his disease. Ping pong helped Navin manage his tremors, maintain his motor skills, and manage other effects of neuro-cognitive decline. He went on to become the first athlete with Parkinson’s to compete at the Paralympic level in any sport.
Inge Herman of Germany was featured in the 2012 documentary “Ping Pong.” After her husband passed away, she stopped eating and caring for herself. She found herself “confused” during everyday activities and conversations. After a couple strokes, Inge moved into a care home where she later discovered a ping pong table. She admits, the discovery “saved my life.” Fifteen years after losing her husband, Inge appeared in the over-85 division at the Table Tennis World Championships in China, competing internationally for her very first time. Despite being diagnosed with dementia, she received news coverage while playing ping pong until age 90.
Ping Pong is Shown to Delay Cognitive Decline
While more studies are needed, stories of people like Norman, Navin, and Inge are backed by scientific research. One study performed in Japan in 1992 concluded that ping pong players “preserve far better mental ability even in the older age compared with non-players.” A 2015 study in Britain analyzed MRI scans of seniors. That study found that ping pong players developed Alzheimer’s later in life, and that the disease’s symptoms developed more slowly in ping pong players.
It’s no surprise, then, that ping pong has become increasingly popular among dementia care providers. Organizations like the Bounce Alzheimer’s Therapy (BAT) Foundation in Britain have even created specialized ping pong training, tables, and therapy programs for those coping with Alzheimer’s. Smaller programs in the U.S. have also popped up in recent years, run by care centers, charities, and local tennis associations.
If you think your loved one might benefit from playing ping pong, all you need to get started are two paddles, a table, and a playing partner. If your loved one has already developed dementia or is at high-risk, the physical and mental benefits of ping pong can help keep him or her active and engaged. A friendly game of ping pong might be just what you’re looking for.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s care providers, Visiting Angels, believe that ping pong can play a big role in the health and wellness of those living with Alzheimer’s. “Exercise — physical and mental — is one of the hardest parts of care to incorporate into day-to-day life,” says Visiting Angels CEO and President, Larry Meigs. “Ping pong is an excellent way to accomplish both and have fun at the same time.”