A brief course of brain exercises helped older adults hold on to improvements in reasoning skills and processing speed for 10 years, according to results from the largest study ever done on cognitive training.
The findings, published on Monday in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, offer welcome news in the search for ways to keep the mind sharp as 76 million baby boomers in the United States advance into old age.
The federally sponsored trial of almost 3,000 adults, called the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly study, or ACTIVE, looked at how three brain training programs — focusing on processing speed, memory and reasoning ability — affected cognitively normal adults as they aged.
People in the study had an average age of 74 when they started the training, which involved 10 to 12 sessions lasting 60 to 75 minutes each.
"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 George Rebok, an expert on aging and a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who led the study.
Participants in all three training groups also reported that they had an easier time with daily activities such as managing their medications, cooking meals or handling finances.
The training course was designed to bolster specific cognitive abilities that begin to slip as people age. It does not aim to prevent dementia caused by underlying disease such as Alzheimer's.
The memory training taught people how to remember word lists, sequences and main ideas, while the reasoning training focused on things like recognizing number patterns.
In the processing speed training, people were asked to focus on the main object in a computer screen while also trying to quickly recognize and identify objects on the periphery of the screen. Such training can help older drivers with things like recognizing road signs while driving.
A version of the speed training program developed for this trial is now commercially available through the brain fitness company Posit Science, but the researchers are working on making other types of training available as well.