A new study suggests exercises meant to improve mental acuity may benefit older adults for as many as 10 years after they received the cognitive training.
A multi-institutional team of researchers reported that older adults who had participated in the mental exercise programs reported less difficulty with everyday tasks of living than were those who had not participated. But the results of the study were decidedly mixed.
The study, as published online by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, is the first to link such cognitive training to benefits in activities in everyday living and not just to mental skills related to the exercises.
Frederick W. Unverzagt, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine reports that the study is known as Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE.
“Previous data from this clinical trial demonstrated that the effects of the training lasted for five years,” said Richard J. Hodes, M.D., director of the National Institute on Aging.
“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.”
Investigators followed 2,832 people living independently in Detroit, Baltimore and western Maryland, Birmingham, Ala., Indianapolis, Boston and central Pennsylvania.
The participants averaged 74 years old at the beginning of the study. About one-quarter of the participants were African-Americans, and about three-quarters were women.
The participants were divided randomly into groups receiving either memory training, reasoning training or speed training.
A fourth, the control group, received no training — and no social contact. Meeting in small groups, the participants had 10 training sessions of 60 to 75 minutes each over a period of five to six weeks.
Since the study did not control for the effects of meeting regularly in a small group socially, the researchers could not rule out other alternative explanations for their findings.
Memory training involved improving abilities to recall texts and lists. Reasoning training included solving problems that involved patterns.
Speed training, conducted on touch screen computers, was designed to increase speed in identifying information in different screen locations.
The types of training were selected because they appeared in previous testing to be applicable to such daily activities as using the phone, tracking medication use and taking care of finances.
After 10 years, participants in each of the training groups reported less difficulty in conducting activities of daily living than those in the control groups.
Participants in all three treatment groups saw immediate improvements in the cognitive ability that was trained compared to participants in the control group who received no training.
However, virtually all groups across the entire spectrum of measurement lost ground on the measures they were tested on, indicating degradation in memory and cognitive processing traits from baseline. The groups did not differ significantly on traits they were not trained on from the control group, suggesting that training is very specific to the task trained on.
This cognitive improvement — groups who lost the least amount of points — was maintained through five years for all three treatments and through 10 years for the participants who received reasoning and speed training.
While the results showed statistical significance, it’s not clear whether these small changes in scoring data (sometimes just a couple of points different from the control group) have clinical significance in everyday living.
Unverzagt noted that overall, the training sessions produced clear but modest benefits, suggesting it would be worthwhile to study the potential benefits of combining cognitive training with other lifestyle and health interventions such as exercise and improved diet.
This article first appeared on Psych Central on 14 January, 2014.