Pingpong Benefits Alzheimer’s Patients

Pingpong therapy brings net gains to Alzheimer’s patients

by Rachel Heller

January 25, 2011

Fryda Dvorak, 86, enjoys a game of pingpong at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center, inside the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Sport and Art Educational Foundation.
Fryda Dvorak, 86, enjoys a game of pingpong at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center, inside the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Sport and Art Educational Foundation.

Fryda Dvorak, 86, enjoys a game of pingpong at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center, inside the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Sport and Art Educational Foundation.

Usually, Fryda Dvorak needs a cane to move around. But put her behind a pingpong table and you wouldn’t know it.

Dvorak, 86 and living with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, returns volley after volley with her confident lob, sometimes gritting her teeth in concentration as she reaches to hit the ball. She’s so focused on the game that she refuses to put the paddle down for a breather when her instructor, Irina, suggests they take a break.

Celia Hernandez, a friend who accompanies Dvorak to her twice-weekly pingpong sessions, knows something special is happening when her companion trains her eye on the small orange ball.

“She doesn’t remember what she had for breakfast or lunch, but she knows she hit the ball 64 times during her lesson, and that Irina lost three times,” Hernandez said.

Sound hard to believe? It’s one of many miracles that can be observed daily at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center, where the nonprofit Sport and Art Educational Foundation (SAEF) runs a pingpong therapy program for patients with Alzheimer’s. Long deemed a beneficial “brain sport” by medical professionals, pingpong could be a powerful tool to keep elderly brains spry and stave off the onset of dementia, SAEF organizers believe.

Under the program’s guidelines, elderly locals come once or twice a week to the Gilbert Center, a state-of-the-art training facility located in the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. There, they take half-hour or hour-long “lessons” with one of the center’s coaches.

There’s none of the frenetic motion-blur of professional game play — although all of the coaches are staggeringly accomplished national and international champions who compete as well as coach. Instead, the instructors gently rally the ball back and forth with participants, giving them tips on how to hold the paddle, how to swing and how to approach the sport as a form of exercise more for the mind than the feet.

The result is a low-impact activity that stimulates concentration, improves hand-eye coordination and motor function, and leaves patients smiling as they find themselves learning an unexpected new skill.

SAEF currently serves about 30 clients at the Westside JCC, and also runs satellite tables at care facilities such as Silverado Senior Living and the Jewish Family Service’s Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center. The organization sends instructors to its outpost locations so people who aren’t as mobile can access them.

“We’re trying to reach as many people as we can,” said Yana Mouradian, SAEF’s vice president. “So far, everyone’s loving it and really benefiting from it.”

SAEF founded the Alzheimer’s program last May based on a 1997 clinical study conducted in Japan showing that brain-disease patients who played pingpong regularly experienced a boost in brain function and awareness, and decreased dementia and depression. That’s because the sport activates multiple regions of the brain and increases cerebral blood flow, improving players’ agility, alertness and overall mood.

In the study, through tests that measured their reasoning skills, communication and memory, a sample of 3,000 elderly table-tennis players were shown to have increased frontal lobe function after two minutes of play. An additional sample of 113 patients with brain diseases and dementia who were put on a pingpong-based rehabilitation program showed physical, mental and emotional improvement after a 10-month period. The number of patients dependent on a wheelchair dropped from 42 to 15, and those able to walk without any assistance rose from 41 to 66. The number of patients suffering from acute depression was halved. More than 70 patients had their dementia rating downgraded after the study period,  25 of them testing “normal” when their pingpong regimen was completed.

SAEF now wants to drum up funding for a similar study in the United States. They hope their program can be a model for pingpong therapy centers across the country. But can the SAEF program harness pingpong’s fountain-of-youth properties as effectively as the Japanese study? Step into the Gilbert Center’s ground-floor game room to find out.

On a recent afternoon, the center’s seven world-class, blue-top tables were in use as clients and coaches rallied the lightweight white and orange balls over the 6-inch-high net.

Betty Stein, 91, has been coming to the Gilbert Center for about seven months. Since starting lessons, she’s been eating more and remembering more of her activities, has better balance when she walks, and is more talkative, said her caregiver, Flor Narvaez.

“She’s more alive — she’s enjoying life more,” Narvaez said, as the neatly coiffed Stein rallied the ball with coach Bella Livshin at a table nearby. “When you live with her every day, you can see the difference — something’s going on.”

It’s much the same story with Dvorak, whose grin rarely faded during her pingpong session with coach Irina Jestkova.

Along with Alzheimer’s, Dvorak suffers from arthritis and muscular problems in her right arm and shoulder. She’s been playing for almost four months. “When she knows she’s going to play pingpong, she immediately cheers up,” said Hernandez, her companion. “She feels important here — like she can really do something — and that makes her happy.”

That translates physically for Dvorak. Although she usually depends on a cane to stand upright, here she stands unassisted in her black velour track suit, only occasionally leaning on the table as she plays. Signs of her arthritis are nonexistent as she easily swings the paddle to hit the ball.

SAEF created its table tennis therapy program for people like Dvorak, said SAEF president and founder Mikhail Zaretsky, who is himself a familiar presence on the pingpong circuit.

Born in Belarus (then the Soviet Union), where the sport is a national pastime, Zaretsky began playing at age 8 and won the prestigious Belarusian Junior Championship by 17. Now a full-time coach at the Gilbert Center, he has long seen the effects of table tennis on adults whose necks and backs were stiff from workdays spent in front of the computer.

“When they started playing pingpong, they felt better,” Zaretsky said. “People started sleeping better and had better concentration — they had more vitality.”

What happens in a person’s brain while playing ping pong? The player must anticipate where the ball will land, keep calm to position his or her hand, and use visual cues to hit the ball. It doesn’t require herculean strength, continual muscle toning or even the ability to stand up (some players enjoy the sport from their wheelchairs). All one needs is an interest in learning.

The SAEF program is currently free, and organizers would like to keep it that way—they just need to find enough funding.

When she sits down at the end of her session, Dvorak is still glowing from the game. “When I play, my body is better. I can move,” she said, pumping her fists in the air like a marathon runner. “It makes me feel good. I feel like I’m still somebody, even at my age.”

A Table Tennis Club for All Ages and Stages