AGING
January 14, 2014

Train Your Brain

Training sessions can protect aging brains against cognitive decline — up to a decade later.

Everyone wants a healthy brain, both now and down the road in old age, when cognitive decline becomes more and more of a risk. There’s been some controversy over whether or not brain training can ward off cognitive decline, and, ultimately, dementia.

Some earlier research suggested a less-than-encouraging answer to this question, but a new Johns Hopkins University study offers some hope, finding that just a little mental training can benefit the brain for years.

Brief Training, Lasting Results

Researchers followed more than 2,800 healthy seniors for ten years. At the beginning of the study, the participants, whose average age was 74, were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups; a fourth served as a control group and did not receive treatment.

One group was taught memory strategies — specific methods for memorizing word lists or other items, material from texts, and large and small concepts from stories.

When it comes to daily activities like dispensing one’s own medications, cooking, and managing money, the difference in quality of life can be huge, and it may mean whether you need a caretaker or can live independently.

Another group was taught how to reason through problems involving patterns, which the researchers say is useful for filling out forms or deciphering bus schedules.

The third group used computer programs designed to improve their information-processing speed, which can be helpful for real-life situations such as navigating traffic or looking up phone numbers.

All the groups had just 10 training sessions, 60 to 75 minutes long, over the course of five or six weeks.

Ten years later, the effects of the training were still evident. On average, 60% of people in the training groups had the same or better level of daily functioning, compared to 50% of the control group.

It may not sound like a huge improvement, but when it comes to daily activities like dispensing one’s own medications, cooking, and managing money, the difference in quality of life can be significant, and it can mean whether you need a caretaker or will be able to live independently.

Some Mental Skills Seem to Provide More Benefits

Breaking down the different types of mental training, the first group (the “memory” group) still showed improvements, relative to controls, at five years, but not at 10 years. The other two groups (the “reasoning” and “information-processing” groups) showed benefits all the way up to 10 years after training, and this was especially true if they’d received “booster” training sessions at one year and three years after the initial training.

One can only wonder what sort of difference a little more training might make.

“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 George Rebok, Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center on Aging and Health and an author of the study, in a statement.

What’s really striking, Rebok points out, is the fact that the training was so brief, taking place over six weeks or less. One can only wonder what difference a little more training might make? Or if continuous training in mental methods that could be used at-home would make even more of a difference? The team’s future research will look into exactly these kinds of questions.

“Our findings provide support for the development of other interventions for senior adults,” Dr. Rebok said, “particularly those that target cognitive abilities showing the most rapid decline with age and that can affect everyday functioning and independence. Such interventions have potential to delay the onset of difficulties in daily functioning.”

There are no FDA-approved brain training programs yet, but perhaps one day there will be. Research like this suggests that just as with our bodies, how hard we “exercise” our brains today could have a large and lasting effect in the years to come.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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