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Alzheimer Europe hosts Alzheimer's Association Academy session focusing on sports and dementia

Tuesday 18 May 2021

On 18 May 2021, Alzheimer Europe held an online session of its popular Alzheimer's Association Academy series. These Academy sessions have been running since December 2015, and have been online since the start of the COVID pandemic. The theme for the session of 18 May was “Sports and Dementia". There was a total of 41 participants at the Academy: 7 Alzheimer Europe staff members, including Executive Director Jean Georges who chaired the meeting; 23 representatives of Alzheimer Europe national member associations from 14 different countries; 1 industry representative; 6 representatives of the European Working Group of People with Dementia (EWGPWD); and 7 expert speakers.

The first speaker was Renato Walkowiak, who presented Ping4Alzheimer, a joint initiative of the French Table Tennis Federation and France Alzheimer. According to some scientific studies, table tennis is one of the most suitable and recommended sports for o lder people, and may help to slow cognitive decline. With this in mind, Mr Walkowiak, whose grandmother passed away with Alzheimer's dementia some years ago, began giving special sessions for people with dementia and carers at Levallois Sporting Table Tennis Club in the Hauts-de-Seine region of France, and the “Ping4Alzheimer” initiative was born. It was tested for two years (2018-2020) and the programme has been such a success that a partnership has now been created between the French Table Tennis Federation and France Alzheimer, with the aim of deploying the initiative nationally. Karine Teow of the International Table Tennis Federation and Lorène Gilly of France Alzheimer joined Mr Walkowiak for this presentation, each highlighting that their respective organisations were delighted to be involved in such a promising project.

Mr Georges asked the three speakers whether they would be willing to share their knowledge and expertise with other countries and organisations, should they wish to set up similar initiatives. All three were happy to help, but pointed out that Mr Walkowiak would be the best first port of call, given his experience in setting the project up.

The second presentation was delivered by Alzheimer Europe Board member Sabine Jansen, from the Deutsche Alzheimer Gesellschaft (DAlzG), Germany. She described the partnership that has developed between her organisation and the Deutsche Olympische Sportbund (German Olympic Sports Confederation), aiming to involve as many people with dementia as possible in sports clubs throughout Germany. The programme, called "Sport bewegt Menschen mit Demenz" (sport moves people with dementia) emerged from Germany's National Dementia Strategy, which was launched in 2019. The first of the four fields of action in the strategy is " Developing and establishing dementia-inclusive communities to enable people with dementia to participate in society", which includes sports and sports clubs. A box of materials was developed in 2020, which is available to sports clubs and Alzheimer associations, in order to motivate and support their participation in this initiative.

Mr Georges asked whether Ms Jansen could give any indication of how many local chapters/regional organisations were interested in joining this project. She responded that nearly all of the DAlzG's regional chapters are interested and willing to participate, as they find this to be a new and interesting concept. In response to a comment about how best to involve people in rural areas, from carer Nélida Aguiar in Madeira, Portugal, Ms Jansen also stressed that it is almost easier to involve people in rural areas in Germany, because so many small villages have sports clubs and these are such an integral part of community life already.

The next presentation was given by Chris Kelly from Alzheimer Scotland and Richard McBrearty from the Scottish Football Museum. They described a joint project called Football Memories, which has been running for over ten years, starting initially as a one-year pilot project in 2009. It was established by the Scottish Football Museum and by members of the Scottish Football Heritage Network. The project also involved Alzheimer Scotland and Glasgow Caledonian University and such was its success that Alzheimer Scotland took over the running of the reminiscence project, with the Scottish Football Museum providing support as a senior partner.

Chris Kelly presented an off-shoot of the project, which he created in 2019: a dementia-friendly walking football league, developed to help give people living with dementia the opportunity to remain involved with football. It offers slow-paced five-a-side games, played at Hampden stadium, Scotland’s national stadium. The project, called “Hampden Heroes”, also gives participants the chance to compete and win the Alzheimer Scotland Walking Football League and Glasgow Cup. This league was dreamt

Richard McBrearty introduced delegates to Scotland’s Football Archive, which represents thousands of images from the history of the game in Scotland. The website enables groups throughout Scotland to access the digital collections of the Scottish Football Museum for "reminiscence activities”. Over the past 5-10 years, other similar initiatives have started across the globe and indeed Football Memories partners with the Netherlands and Brazil. Delegate Donal Murphy, representing The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, commented that they are about to launch a similar project, taking the learnings from Scotland. EWGPWD member Kevin Quaid, also from Ireland, mentioned his love of hurling and the Irish project is looking to also involve the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).

The final talk was on "Sport and dementia risk", given by Michael Hornberger, who is the Professor of Applied Dementia Research at the Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. His talk was mainly focused on the link between traumatic head injury and dementia. He began by emphasising the importance and benefits of sports, both for general wellbeing and for dementia risk-reduction, which he said can be reduced by up to 30% through regular exercise. There is, however, a risk of dementia associated with heavy contact sports-related head injuries.

The clinical evidence of a link between traumatic head injury and dementia has been known since the 1920s. The initial evidence was based mostly on boxers, who often develop dementia-like symptoms later in life. The boxers’ post mortem brains showed that they have similar protein changes in their brains to people with Alzheimer’s disease. These changes, named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and have also been demonstrated in professional players of sports such as rugby, American football and ice hockey.

The key injury to avoid, he noted, is concussion and in particular repeated concussions. Now, many sports have concussion protocols in place, as it is increasingly recognised that concussion can have a significant impact on brain health and future dementia risk, but it is not only concussion that can cause neuroinflammation, but also "sub-concussive" events. These may be caused, for example, by heading the ball in football. For this reason, heading the ball has been banned in children's football, since the young brain is more prone to injury.

In closing, Prof. Hornberger again highlighted that physical activity and sports in general are extremely beneficial for brain health and that people should be encouraged to be physically active, but should be aware of the risk posed by repeated impact to the head. Jean Georges complimented all the speakers on their informative and engaging presentations and on the positive impact their work is having on people with dementia and carers. He also thanked them all for their willingness to support other associations wishing to set up similar initiatives in their own countries.

The Alzheimer’s Association Academy received funding under an operating grant from the European Union’s Health Programme (2014-2020). Alzheimer Europe gratefully acknowledges the support of its gold and silver sponsors and of the corporate sponsors of the Alzheimer’s Association Academy

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