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Mental Training Pays Long Dividends for Elderly

File - Alexis McKenzie, right, executive director of The Methodist Home of the District of Columbia Forest Side, an Alzheimer's assisted-living facility, shares a light moment with resident Catherine Peake, in Washington, February 6, 2012.
File - Alexis McKenzie, right, executive director of The Methodist Home of the District of Columbia Forest Side, an Alzheimer's assisted-living facility, shares a light moment with resident Catherine Peake, in Washington, February 6, 2012.

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Just a little cognitive training goes a long way toward stemming mental decline in older adults, according to new research. Mental decline is a leading factor in reducing quality of life for the elderly, the study says.

According to the findings, older adults who received just 10 sessions of different types of cognitive training were better at reasoning and other mental tasks 10 years after the sessions when compared to a control group who received no training.

For a group that received “booster” sessions over the next three years, the results were even more positive, the research said.

"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 lead author Dr. George Rebok of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in a statement.

The new data from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study comes 10 years after an initial group of 2,832 participants with an average age of 73.6 years were divided into four groups.

One group consisted of memory training, in which they were given tips for remembering word lists, the order of items, and to remember the gist of texts.

Another group received reasoning training, involving instruction for how to “solve problems that follow patterns, which researchers say is useful for reading bus schedules or completing order forms.

A third group received speed-of processing training, using a computer to test the ability to “locate visual information quickly.” This kind of task, researchers say, is useful for looking up phone numbers or making quick decisions while driving.

A fourth, or control group, received no training.

The three groups all received training in small groups in 10 sessions of 60 to 75 minutes each over five to six weeks.

The researchers found that 10 years later, each group that received training had “less difficulty with instrumental activities of daily living” such as taking medication, cooking or keeping tabs on financial activities.

About 60 percent of the trained participants “were at or above their starting level of function” regarding these kinds of activities. This compares to just 50 percent for the control group. Reasoning and speed-of-processing performance also showed “significant improvements” for those who received training. Memory performance, however, did not seem to last for the full 10 years. Those participants scored better than their untrained peers after five years, but after 10 years, there was not much difference with the control group.

The study also showed that those who received training boosters 11 and 35 months after the initial training showed improvement in reasoning and speed-of-processing.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), which helped fund the study, said the findings could have implications for the elderly and those who take care of them.

“Now, these longer term results indicate that particular types of cognitive training can provide a lasting benefit a decade later, said NIA director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. in a statement. “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.”

The findings are published today in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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