Training May Help Senior Thinking Skills

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Harvard Medical School
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Training May Help Senior Thinking Skills

News Review From Harvard Medical School

January 14, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Training May Help Senior Thinking Skills

"Brain training" may help older adults think clearly, but may not help memory, a new study shows. The study included more than 2,800 people, average age 73. They were randomly divided into 4 groups. Three groups received brain training. The memory group learned strategies to remember words, lists and story details. The reasoning group learned how to solve problems that follow patterns. A third group used a computer program that trained them to find and process visual information quickly. The fourth got no training. People had improvements in these specific skills right after they were trained. Ten years later, researchers were able to track down about half of them and test them again. About 60% of the trained groups and 50% of the untrained group reported being at least as able to handle daily tasks as they were 10 years before. Tasks included taking medicines, cooking and managing finances. People who got training in reasoning and speed of processing retained their improvements. But memory had slipped for everyone. Those who had memory training were no better off than other groups. The Journal of the American Geriatric Society published the study online. HealthDay News wrote about it January 13.


By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
With age, we expect declines in thinking, understanding, learning and remembering. Together, these brain tasks are known as cognitive function.

Many more people now live to a very old age. So it would be great to find ways to halt or at least slow cognitive decline. We also hope that in some people these same steps may also delay the start of dementia.

Ten years ago, researchers launched a study to examine the impact of "brain training" in older adults living at home. The trial was called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE). The average age at the start of the study was 73.

People were randomly assigned to one of four groups:

  • No special brain training
  • Training to improve memory
  • Training to improve reasoning
  • Training to improve speed of processing visual information

The study was designed to see if brain training could help people preserve cognitive abilities and the ability to take care of themselves. Self-care in this study was defined as performing the activities of daily living, such as:

  • Getting dressed
  • Bathing
  • Managing finances
  • Shopping for necessities
  • Preparing meals

Even 10 years later, people who had been trained in reasoning or speed of processing did better on tests of the related skills than people who did not receive any training. Those who had booster training sessions after 11 and 35 months performed even better.

But memory training did not stick. After 10 years, people who received this training performed no better at memory tasks than people who got no training.

Overall, 60% of those who were trained reported that they could still do self-care, compared with 50% of the untrained group.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

It makes sense that keeping our minds active would help maintain brain function as we age.

But there is even better evidence that staying physically active and engaging in regular exercise keeps your brain healthy. Multiple studies show a definite link between exercise and:

  • Holding onto your cognitive abilities
  • Reducing your risk of dementia

Finding purpose to your life also matters. The journal Archives of General Psychiatry published a study on this issue recently. It found that older people who reported higher levels of purpose in life also had better cognitive function.

  • Purpose could be as simple as reaching out daily to family and friends. Ask what you can do to be helpful, even if you have physical limitations.
  • If you are able, volunteer with a charity, library, hospital or school. Helping others is a great way to stay socially engaged.
  • Do things you enjoy, such as going to the movies once a week. Make a point of doing them with friends and family.
  • Find a new hobby, restart an old one or learn a brand new skill, such as painting or playing a musical instrument.


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Even though the results of this study are encouraging, only 44% of those in the original study were still available for the follow-up at 10 years. So the findings might not be so impressive after all. Also, the brain training given to the people was intense and likely very expensive.

Future studies will need to look at simpler and less costly brain training techniques.

Last updated January 14, 2014

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