Marjatta Rolls has been coping with the effects of Alzheimer's for years, but that hasn't stopped her from enjoying iPad games.

As pieces of fruit whiz across the screen, she swipes her finger as if she's brandishing a ninja sword — slicing apples and kiwi fruit as they cross her path.

Then, after swiping the wrong object, she watches as the on-screen "bomb" explodes.

"You don't want to slice the bomb," teases Ashley Kwong, the owner of Markham-based Memory & Company, the memory loss health club where Rolls and dozens of other seniors with dementia are clients.

Many of those clients were the participants in a 16-week study by York University researchers, which found that "thinking-while-moving" exercises — like playing certain iPad games — might actually boost the cognitive functioning of people with dementia and other cognitive deficits. 

The research, which is still preliminary, found 80 per cent of the elderly participants improved scores on multiple scales of cognitive functioning, and all the participants showed an overall improvement in "thinking-while-moving" tasks.

"It's often believed that people living with memory loss that it's progressive and gets worse with time," said Kwong.

"But we're actually seeing that we can maintain cognitive functioning, and some of our members were even improving their ability to adapt to changes, something which hasn't been found before."

ashley kwong marjatta rolls

Ashley Kwong (left) works with Marjatta Rolls, a client of Memory & Company, a memory loss health club in Markham. (Pelin Sidki/CBC News)

Findings 'quite exciting,' but more research needed

Researcher Lauren Sergio, a neuroscientist with York University, said these early results offer some takeaways for the roughly 560,000 Canadians with dementia — and their families.

"It seems to help to not just have our elders thinking, and not just have them moving, but actually having them do activities that combine these things, like brushing your teeth with the other hand, or taking up an instrument," she said.

The results of the study are "quite exciting," said Nalini Sen, director of the research program with the Alzheimer's Society of Canada. 

"I think that further investigation and further evidence to support these exciting findings would be warranted, and that's something I hope to see in the future," she added.

Sergio says her team aims to have the study peer-reviewed and published, and continue their research down the road.

But Kwong says even these early findings offer hope.

"People can live with Alzheimer's for up to 20 years. Your life shouldn't have to stop because of a diagnosis. It's about looking for ways to find your strengths again," she said.