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Cognitive training significantly improves mental functioning

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Cognitive training significantly improves mental functioning in older adults.

As people age, they often experience a decline in their mental functioning, but new research shows that a brief course of cognitive strength training can improve an older adult’s ability to reason and increase their processing speed for up to 10 years.

Moreover, researchers found that adults who received an additional 3 years of cognitive training experienced even greater improvements in mental functioning, compared with those who received no training.

Study leader and mental health expert George Rebok, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, said that for adults who received cognitive training to improve their mental functioning for up to 10 years is “a stunning result” – due, in part, to the minimal investment required for practicing mental skills, which can nevertheless yield “relatively long-term effects beyond what we might reasonably expect."

In addition, Dr. Rebok and his team found that older adults who received brief cognitive training reported less difficulty with performing routine daily tasks.

Even slight improvements in the mental functioning of seniors can have a major impact on public health and help reduce the rising cost of caring for older adults, noted Prof. Rebok.

The study involved 2,832 older adult participants who were followed for a period of 10 years after receiving 10 sessions of cognitive training in small groups, each lasting 60-75 minutes over a period of 5-6 weeks.

The average age of the participants when the study started was 73.6 years, and each was randomly assigned to one of three groups: 1) memory; 2) reasoning; or 3) speed-of-processing training. A fourth control group of untrained participants was also added to ensure the accuracy of the results.

The participants assigned to memory training learned how to remember word lists and sequences of items and texts, including details of stories.

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Those in the reasoning group were taught problem-solving skills to help them better manage daily tasks, including filling out order forms and how to read bus timetables.

And the participants in the speed-of-processing training group were taught how to use computer programs, including how to quickly find visual information and increase scanning skills.

The results of the study, soon to be published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that the participants who received training in memory, reasoning and speed processing not only improved their basic mental skills, but also maintained them for up to a decade.

The findings come from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, which conducted tests to see if courses in cognitive training could help seniors become functionally independent and stay that way by improving basic cognitive skills.

After 10-years of follow-up, the participants who received cognitive training reported that they experienced fewer problems performing routine daily tasks like managing finances, cooking, and taking medications – and 60 percent of them were still performing at their improved levels since they received cognitive training, compared with only 50 percent of the untrained control group.

Meanwhile, memory improved in the cognitive training group for up to 5 years after receiving it, but after 10 years, no significant difference was found between the cognitive training group and the control group that received no training.

By the same token, those participants in the reasoning and speed-of-processing training group appeared to have improvements that lasted longer, as trained participants continued to demonstrate significant improvements in the skills they were taught 10 years later, compared with the control group that received no training.

Among the trained participants who received 4 additional cognitive training sessions between the end of the first and third year of follow-up, they experienced even greater improvements in reasoning and speed-of-processing.

Prof. Rebok concluded that their findings show support for the development of other types of interventions for seniors, especially for older adults who are exhibiting a rapid decline in daily functioning and independence, as he says that such interventions could potentially “delay the onset of difficulties in daily functioning."

SOURCE: "Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults," George Rebok and others (2014). Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, first published online: 13 JAN 2014 DOI: 10.1111/jgs.12607