Cognitive-Training Can Result in Long-Term Improvement

Brain training leads to lasting rewards

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There is a long-standing notion that playing brain games, such as puzzles and other mental undertakings, can help stave off the negative effects of aging. But is the old "use it or lose it" adage really true? Do these cognitive games really have any sort of impact on mental functioning in the elderly?

Study Points to Lasting Benefits of Cognitive-Training

According to the results of a large-scale study, such mental training could help improve the cognitive function of older adults by as much as 38% by the year 2050.

A large study found that cognitive training results in improvement in areas that relate to daily function. Plus, the effects of this training had a long-term impact in most areas, with participants showing improvement up to 10 years later.

“Previous data from this clinical trial demonstrated that the effects of the training lasted for five years,” explained Dr. Richard J. Hodes, Director of the National Institutes of Health. “Now, these longer term results indicate that particular types of cognitive training can provide a lasting benefit a decade later. They suggest that we should continue to pursue cognitive training as an intervention that might help maintain the mental abilities of older people so that they may remain independent and in the community.” The National Institutes of Health supported the study.

The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study looked at 2,832 people over the age of 65. Over the course of a 10 year period, the participants received training in reasoning, processing speed, and memory while a control group received no such training. Previous research suggested that these three key areas were more likely to show early age-related declines that impact areas of daily living.

The average age of the participants in the ACTIVE study was almost 74 years old at the outset of the study. The training sessions were conducted in small groups and involved 10 sessions with each session lasting approximately 60 to 75 minutes. The exercises involved activities such as pattern detection, using a touch screen program to increase speed, and memorizing lists.

The Impact of Brain Training

So what effect did this cognitive training have? The researchers found that the participants who had received the training experienced improvement in daily activities that involved cognitive abilities in which they had received training. Memory improvements translated to real-life activities such as recalling when to take their medications and which items they needed to get at the grocery store while speed-response training relates to things such as reaction-time when driving.

But did the effect last? Five years after receiving the training, participants from all three groups still showed improvement in the areas in which they had received training. The effect declined over time for those in the memory group, however. After ten years, the memory group no longer displayed any improvement while the speed-processing group did. The results revealed that after 10 years, nearly 74 percent of those who had received reasoning training still showed improvements over the baseline levels. Those in the processing-speed group still showed a nearly 62% improvement over the baseline levels and those in the memory group showed no improvement.

The study's authors suggest that these findings would hopefully encourage other researchers to further examine how these processes work and to develop effective cognitive skills training programs. The authors also suggest that “if interventions that could delay the onset of functional impairment by even 6 years were introduced, the number of people affected by 2050 would be reduced by 38%, which would be of great public health significance.” Considering the large population of aging people, such improvement could have a significant impact on the mental health and functioning of older adults.

“The speed-of-processing results are very encouraging,” said study co-author Jonathan W. King, Ph.D., program director for cognitive aging in the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institutes of Health. “The self-reported improvements in daily function are interesting, but we do not yet know whether they would truly allow older people to live independently longer; if they did, even a small effect would be important, not only for the older adults but also for family members and others providing care.”

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  1. Tennstedt SL, Unverzagt FW. The ACTIVE Study: Study Overview and Major Findings. J Aging Health. 2013;25(8 Suppl):3S-20S. doi:10.1177/0898264313518133