Computer game helps Alzheimer’s patients retain memory

As incidence of the incurable disease grows, experts look for new ways to slow its progress, like the Savyon computer game.

alzheimers computer game 311 (photo credit: The Media Line)
alzheimers computer game 311
(photo credit: The Media Line)
Immaculately dressed elderly men and women shuffle into the main hall and take their seats at the tables, some smiling and jabbering away, others more subdued with a vacant look in their eyes, as they begin their day at an Alzheimer’s day care center in Jerusalem.
“Staying at home kills these people,” said Motti Zelikovitch, director-general of Melabev, Israel leading organization caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. “The center is better because you’re forced to get out of their home, you have to dress nicely. You come. You see your friends. Even if you don’t remember your friend from one day to the next, you see them and that helps.”
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One-by-one, the men and women are led to a computer room where they sit in front of a screen and play a new game designed to maintain and improve memory in people  afflicted early- and middle-stage Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer's disease causes loss of memory and other cognitive functions, and, ultimately, death.
“You’re going to build a circle with three pieces, so which piece goes over here?” an instructor asks one patient. The woman, an elderly immigrant from Switzerland, begins using the computer to assemble the circle.
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, Israeli researchers have developed a computer game that say can slow down the progress of the disease. It’s called Savyon, and Israel hopes to export it to treat Alzheimer’s patients around the world.
It is for innovations like these that the Alzheimer’s Foundation International (AFI) has come to Israel. The organization recently signed an agreement to include Israel’s Alzheimer’s Foundation as one of its members in an effort to boost research and share best practices related to treatment and care.
“Alzheimer’s is horrendous and it is the one thing that all nations share at this moment. It is the one situation that is causing the most turmoil for governments, for organizations and also for families all over,” Eric Hall, AFI’s chief executive officer, told The Media Line.
“Regrettably, there’s no cure, so in the meantime care becomes a priority and programs and services are really necessary. Support resources for family members are really important,” Hall said. “What the AFI hopes to do is to move from country to country and gather resources that then can be made available in a greater way to a community.”
The Alzheimer’s population is growing in developed countries as baby boomers enter old age and the elderly population grows, according to Hall,. Some11,000 Americans turn 65 everyday, and one in eight will be afflicted by Alzheimer’s. It is estimated that 35.6 million people worldwide have dementia, and the incidence is expected to increase to 115 million by 2050. An estimated five million Americans suffer from the disease while in Israel there are some 200,000 diagnosed patients. Zelikovitch estimates that another 200,000 cases are undetected.
“Alzheimer’s is truly going to be a pandemic in most countries, where mortality occurs in peoples’ seventies, eighties and nineties,” Hall said. “It‘s a disease that doesn’t discriminate. It’s a crisis. And, with the absence of a cure, we really need to figure out how we are going to recognize its impact. AFI’s vision is simply that no one country, no one government can do this by themselves and that perhaps a unified international effort is the most beneficial.”
The AFI has a vision to boost awareness of the disease and to scour the world to look for better treatment and innovations that can be shared. From Jerusalem, Hall was to travel to France to examine their treatment practices and possible innovations.
The Israeli Savyon computer program is currently available in Hebrew, English, Spanish, French and Greek. Developed over a decade at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the program looks much like a child’s mathematical tutorial. But, researchers say, it is specifically designed to spark the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
“If a patient works with this computer program two or three times a week for half an hour at a time, Alzheimer’s can be stabilized or slowed down. It’ not going to go away, but it can be stabilized or slowed,” Zelikovitch told The Media Line.
Melabev operates some 10 daycare centers across Israel, which offer treatment in a variety of languages to deal with the tendency of Alzheimer’s victims to return to their mother tongue. Suffers are given music, art and gardening therapy. Staffers also help with their grooming and physical care, giving family members a welcomed respite from the chore. 
“I love coming here,” said an exuberant Rose, 86. “I come regularly. I meet people who are interested in the same things I am interested in. Nobody is gossiping against anybody. We all enjoy the presence. They prepare us with such nice speeches. It lifts my day, instead of sitting around and watching the boob-tube, or eating, or all the things you do to keep busy.”
One of the major cultural problems with Alzheimer’s is the stigma that goes with it. While this has been reduced among the general population, there are still communities who try to hide it, in particular Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
Zelikovitch said his organization would soon be opening its first Arabic-language center.  In Arab culture, the elderly are cared for at home out of a tradition of respect, but this means they don’t benefit from expert guidance and advice. In ultra-Orthodox communities, medical conditions tend to be hidden so as not to harm marriage opportunities for the next generation.
These stigmas also exist worldwide. Hall said advocacy programs like National Memory Screening Day and telethons have made Alzheimer’s “a little more palatable, accessible to a population that is terrified, fearful. There is an enormous amount of stigma that surrounds this disease. Those are some of the things we all share in every single country that I’ve gone to.”