Cognitive Training Lowers Depressive Symptom Risk

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

The risk of worsening depressive symptoms, one of the most common mental health problems experienced by older adults, can be significantly reduced by cognitive training aimed at maintaining and improving the speed of information processing, according to a team of University of Iowa researchers.

The research team, led by Fredric Wolinsky, Ph.D., who holds the John W. Colloton Chair in Health Management and Policy in the UI College of Public Health, evaluated three different cognitive interventions to see if they could prevent the worsening of depressive symptoms. Of the 2,802 original study participants, complete data were analyzed for 2,014 (72 percent) at the one-year follow-up evaluation and for 1,516 (54 percent) at the five-year follow-up evaluation.

The group that participated in the speed-of-processing training, a computer-based program designed to improve their ability to identify and locate visual information quickly, was 30 percent less likely to experience clinically important worsening of their depressive symptoms at both the one- and two-year follow-ups, according to Wolinsky. The two other cognitive interventions, involving memory and reasoning training, did not demonstrate similar protective effects against worsening depressive symptoms.


"Based on our findings, we believe that widespread dissemination of the speed-of-processing training program, which is extremely easy to use and can be installed on nearly any home computer, can have a significant public health impact," Wolinsky said.

The study team also included UI faculty members Mark Vander Weg, Ph.D., associate professor of internal medicine in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and Rene Martin, Ph.D., associate professor in the UI College of Nursing. Wolinsky, Vander Weg and Martin also all have positions with the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The study, part of a National Institutes of Health-funded multi-site trial known as Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE), has been published online in the Journal of Gerontology.

Depressive symptom levels and clinical depression are found at increased levels among the elderly, especially in those with health and functional limitations. In addition, depressive symptoms and clinical depression in older adults are associated with an increased risk of becoming frail and developing chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Previous studies have suggested that speed of processing is important for everyday performance, functional and health status among elders. Speed-of-processing training may protect against depression either indirectly, by enhancing behaviors or functions, such as driving, which are improved by the training, or directly, by affecting brain functions related to mood, according to the research team.