A new study finds that a relatively simple intervention can lessen subtle vision problems associated with normal aging, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s disease, and thus enhance cognitive function.
Researchers from Boston University and Case Western Reserve University showed that changing the way something looks — in this case, the cards in the game Bingo — can enhance performance. Their paper discussing the investigation is published online in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.
The paper, entitled “Bingo! Externally supported performance intervention for deficient visual search in normal aging, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease,” was published in a special issue on cognitive and motivational mechanisms.
Researchers focused on interventions that help individuals compensate for age-related or disease-induced limitations related to performance of complex cognitive tasks. The researchers chose to investigate the game of Bingo because it is a popular and familiar leisure activity.
For the activity, players generally try to keep track of multiple cards at once to increase their odds of winning — but this is made difficult by the fact that Bingo cards used in community games are rather small and faint in print.
As such, players use aspects of vision that have been shown to be impaired to varying degrees in normal aging and in the common neurodegenerative disorders of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers investigated whether players’ Bingo performance could be improved by making the cards larger and the numbers on them bolder, and by decreasing the amount of cards played at one time.
Participants in the study were 19 healthy younger adults, 33 healthy older adults, 14 individuals with probable Alzheimer’s disease, and 17 non-demented individuals with Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers found that increasing card size and decreasing visual complexity through reducing the number of cards to search resulted in improvements in performance by all groups.
“It is basic and simple to increase the size and decrease the complexity of the visual aspects of an everyday task, yet it helped each of the groups we studied,” said researcher Thomas Laudate, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
Researchers believe the participants with Alzheimer’s disease received additional benefit from increased the visual boldness of the numbers on the cards, which presumably compensated for the patients’ reduced contrast sensitivity.
A important finding from the study is the benefit of focusing on a variety of sensory inputs to improve performance.
“This research helps show that those with Alzheimer’s disease have visual deficits that interfere with functioning but they can be helped by increasing the contrast, or boldness, of the things they see,” said Laudate.
Researcher Alice Cronin-Golomb, Ph.D., concurred. “We focus so much on memory impairments that we sometimes forget that older adults can have impairments in other domains, too, such as in vision. We can’t fix memory very well but we have a whole arsenal of techniques to improve vision, and with that comes an improved quality of life.”
The study confirms prior findings that enhancing visual aspects of the environment improves the ability to engage in a wide range of vital everyday activities including reading, eating, taking medication and recognizing faces and objects, even in those with cognitive difficulties.
The improved functioning observed in healthy elders and in those with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s suggests the value of external visual support as an effective, easy-to-apply intervention to compensate for visual impairments.