Why ping pong just might be the elixir of youth

| August 12, 2013 | 0 Comments
A competitive table tennis game.

A competitive table tennis game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Table tennis, ping pong, wiff-waff: call it what you will, it’s increasingly popular in the UK, with 2.4 million players. Now there are suggestions it could even help with conditions like dementia.

“Let’s put money on it,” he said. My dad was a little reluctant. While his opponent, Ken Leighton, seemed pretty confident in his own table tennis abilities, dad was a bit less convinced – not least because Ken is 85 years old.

This turned out to be a fairly serious under-estimation of Ken’s ping pong skills. Ken thrashed him. Then, a few months later, I played Ken. He thrashed me too.

I reminded him of these games recently.

Let’s put money on it. The challenge from 85-year-old table tennis player, Ken Leighton, to his much younger opponent.

“I think your dad thought he wasn’t going to get a game… He went home with his tail between his legs,” said Ken, laughing. “It’s happened before.”

Ken started playing table tennis when he was in the army, in 1945. That was 68 years ago.

“I had a decent bat which I still use today,” he said. “It’s got a mark on the back where my fingers have been – it’s taken the rubber off.”

Ken, who lives in Lancashire, is one of a host of older people who are finding that table tennis is a game for all ages. Last year, a documentary made by Britdoc/Banyak Films called Ping Pong followed eight players on their way to the over-80s world table tennis championships in China.

The 3,500 competitors may be elderly, but they are fierce on the table – and off it.

“This old girl, I don’t care how good she is. I should get her. Shecan’t move,” says one of the female players, talking about the oldestplayer in the 2010 tournament: 101-year-old Dorothy DeLow, fromAustralia.

I was playing table tennis, and I think that saved me. 101-year-old Dorothy DeLow, a competitor in the over-80s table tennis world championships

But the film has a serious side to it as well. Dorothy tells thefilmmakers: “I lost my husband and my daughter and I was playing tabletennis, and I think that saved me.”

Another competitor, Inge Herman, who is 90 in the film, stoppedeating and drinking when her husband died 15 years ago, and became”confused”. Then she discovered table tennis – and is shown in the filmsmashing her opponents, clearly together, and seemingly not at all”confused”.

Ken would agree that table tennis has helped keep him fit. Herecently had to have an operation, which doctors said they would nothave undertaken on a man of his age if he wasn’t so healthy.

“Without a shadow of a doubt [it has helped me]. The doctor said if I hadn’t been fit, they wouldn’t have done the operation. And it’s absolutely helped me mentally as well. I think it’s great,” he said.

Now scientists who have seen the Ping Pong film want to test whether there is any scientific basis behind the improvements some of the characters showed after playing table tennis. At the same time, the filmmakers are taking the film and “ping pong kits” to care homes and community centres around the country to try and encourage older people to play – both for the physical and mental benefits.


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