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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Sports Features

Ping-Pong called a great 'brain sport'

If you’re battling Alzheimer’s disease, your weapon of choice could be a ping pong paddle.

Five years ago, Dr. Douglas Frasier, 78, was a pediatrics professor at UCLA’s medical school. Then, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s become a real focus of our lives because Doug can’t do much anymore,” said his wife, Dr. Robin Frasier.

The progressive brain disease took a toll on the couple. As Dr. Frasier’s responsibilities dropped off, his wife’s increased. He used to help with the dishes, feed the dogs, grocery shop, and take care of finances. Now, the Frasiers’ life together is much different.

“The worst part of it is… he can’t find words,” said Mrs. Frasier. “It’s difficult for him to tell me what he needs or what’s worrying him… He can speak, but he frequently can’t find these words… We don’t have conversations. And so things are pretty silent around here.”

Then, Dr. Frasier’s therapist suggested a hobby that doesn’t involve too many words or too much strain: ping pong

“Table tennis is the best sport, especially for people over 40 years old, when they cannot play soccer, basketball,” said Bella Livshin, a competitive table tennis player, instructor at USC, and Dr. Frasier’s coach. “Table tennis, it’s never late to start to play.”

Dr. Frasier started taking one-on-one lessons at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center in Los Angeles. The non-profit Sport and Art Educational Foundation began its pilot Alzheimer’s and Dementia Table Tennis Therapy Program at the center last April. It’s the only one of its kind in the country, but SAEF vice president Yana Mouradian is optimistic about its spread as more people hear about the benefits of ping pong.

“It activates multiple portions of the brain,” she said.

The program is based on a Japanese clinical study that showed table tennis to be a great “brain sport” for patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

“It requires a lot of concentration, it requires for the person playing to be able to predict where the ball’s going to land, to be able to make contact with the ball, and that requires you to stay calm,” said Mouradian. All these different things and all these different parts of the brain get stimulated.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, but there’s still no cure. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and it affects more than five million Americans.

“If you don’t have it, somebody you know will eventually have it,” said Mouradian. “It’s always like that. It touches everybody’s lives.”

“There’s nothing good about it. I’ll tell you that,” said Mrs. Frasier. “But the ping pong program is good.”

SAEF hopes to eventually license and expand its program worldwide.

Alzheimer’s disease is still a question that has no answers, but if this program is any proof, it can’t hurt to face it armed with a ping pong paddle.

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