Brain training helps seniors maintain long-term brain function

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

WASHINGTON, January 18, 2014—The first large-scale study of the effects of cognitive training on seniors’ ability to retain certain brain functions, published Monday, concludes that minimal training could have surprisingly long-lasting effects. According to researchers such intervention could reduce the number of people that experience functional impairment by 38 percent by 2050, having a potentially considerable impact on public health.   

Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, followed 2,832 volunteers over 65 years of age for 10 years. When the study began, the median age of subjects was 73.6 and all of the participants were “cognitively normal.” None of the subjects lived in nursing homes or other facilities, but instead resided in their communities within six U.S. cities. Twenty six percent of the participants were African American, the rest were white.

The study divided participants into four groups; three groups received 10 to 12 training sessions on either memory, reasoning or speed of processing, while one control group received no training. Training consisted of 60 to 75 minute-long sessions over five to six weeks, followed by four booster training sessions 11 and 35 months after the initial training. Sessions included exercises like detecting patterns, using touch screen programs, and memorizing lists, designed to improve cognitive performance. Participants then returned for regular testing to determine how they were coping as they aged immediately after training, and one, two, three, five and 10 years later.

According to data collected by the research team five years after training, all three groups that received training experienced better skills in the areas they were trained in than untrained counterparts. After 10 years the speed of processing and reasoning groups continued to show better skills, but the memory group did not.

“Showing that training gains are maintained for up to 10 years is a stunning result because it suggests that a fairly modest intervention in practicing mental skills can have relatively long-term effects beyond what we might reasonably expect,” said lead author Dr. George Rebok of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD in a press release.

Even though participants from the three groups that received training reported an easier time handling daily activities like cooking meals, remembering to take medication and managing their finances, standard tests showed no difference in these activities between the groups. Participants only reported improved skills in the areas they were trained in and not other areas. However, the results of the study are encouraging.

“What we found was pretty astounding. Ten years after the training, there was evidence the effects were durable for the reasoning and the speed training,” said Rebok to CBS News. As 76 million baby boomers approach old age, the study comes as welcome news.

Further research and investment in this kind of therapy could have far-reaching implications.

“If we delay the onset of difficulties in daily activities even by a small amount, that can have major public health implications in terms of helping to curb healthcare costs, delaying entry into institutions and hospitals,” said Rebok. There are several limitations to the study. For example, training was not designed to prevent the kind of dementia caused by underlying diseases like Alzheimer’s. Instead, it was designed to strengthen specific cognitive abilities that deteriorate with age.

This news may bring online brain training programs like Lumosity to mind.

“We neither endorse nor criticize these commercial products,” said Jonathan King, one of the report’s authors and project scientist at the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research, to the Washington Post. “We don’t know their methodology, how long it lasts or whether it leads to the kind of improvement that people are hoping for.”

However, an adaptation of the speed training used in this trial is now commercially available through Posit Science, and researchers are developing other types of training to make available to the general public. Rebok and his team recently received a grant to commercialize the memory training from the National Institute on Aging, in the hopes that repeated training will improve results.

“Our findings provide support for the development of other interventions for senior adults, particularly those that target cognitive abilities showing the most rapid decline with age, and that can affect their everyday functioning and independence,” Rebok said in a press release.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research of the National Institutes of Health to Hebrew SeniorLife, Indiana University School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, New England Research Institutes, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Florida. Drs. Jones and Morris were also supported in part by the Edward Fein Foundation (Nevada) and through the generosity of Vicki and Arthur Loring (Massachusetts).

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, MD attorney. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter @lasesana, and Google+.

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