Global Health

Bilbao's city parks offer brain-training games for the elderly 

Elderly people are helped across the road by their Nicaraguan assistants during an excursion to Dona Casilda park in Bilbao October 26, 2012.    REUTERS/Vincent West (SPAIN - Tags: SOCIETY) - GM1E8AR02NL01

The Spanish city wants to boost happiness and interaction among its senior citizens. Image: REUTERS/Vincent West

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Loneliness and memory loss are two of the most universal fears about getting old. In Bilbao, Spain, city authorities are tackling both with the launch of a programme of cognitive games for the elderly in two public parks.

Image: Statista

The games – which help with attention span and mental arithmetic – are designed to build social connections and improve mental fitness. The parks will also give visitors the chance to take an exercise bike for a spin.

“By creating spaces where people can do not just physical but also cognitive exercises, we’re also making people interact with each other,” says Fran Vinez, Bilbao’s Director of Public Works and Services.

“All this connects to the issues of loneliness and people who live without interaction with others.”

Brain-training helps improve memory and movement. Image: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Such spaces will become more important: by 2040, Spain is set to take over from Japan as home to the world’s longest-living population.

Fit for the future

There will be more than 2 billion people over the age of 60 by 2050, according to the Global Coalition on Aging.

The older people are, the more likely they are to be affected by dementia. A new case is diagnosed every 3 seconds, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of people living with the disease will almost triple by 2050. That puts a huge strain on public health services: annual global costs are already $818 billion.

It’s estimated that there will be around 82 million people suffering from dementia by 2030.

Gentle exercise and mental stimulation can help prevent the onset of dementia and manage symptoms, by improving cognition, building physical strength, increasing confidence and independence and reducing feelings of isolation.

Exercises from the East

When a cognitive enhancement gymnastics programme for elderly people with dementia was trialled in South Korea, researchers found participants in the study got much stronger at walking and had an improved sense of well-being after taking part in the activities.


The success of such projects in South Korea and Japan inspired the British Gymnastics Federation to launch its own chair gymnastics sessions in care homes and community sites across the UK, where it has already helped to elderly participants to be more mobile and more social.

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Window shopping with a difference

There are mall walking schemes all over Toronto, Canada. In a city where winter temperatures can drop to -25°C, Mall Movers helps keep older people on the go throughout the year, with built-in social benefits.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such programmes can help overcome barriers to activity for elderly people, like fear of falling and worries about access to toilet facilities.

The Active Living Coalition for Older Adults says that mall managers welcome the sight of perambulating pensioners, who help increase mall traffic while they’re keeping fit, and often shop at stores.

After all, any new fitness regime calls for the right workout gear.

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Related topics:
Global HealthMental Health
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