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Mental Exercises Keep the Aging Brain in Shape

Many people worry about losing their mental acuity as they age, and scientists have long wondered what could be done to help senior citizens keep their brains sharp. A decade-long study indicates that giving seniors some cognitive training could slow the loss of memory and mental skill as they aged. Jeffrey Elias, now head of the study at the US National Institute on Aging, says researchers wanted to perform a really large clinical control trial. "As people get older, one of the things they worry about or are concerned about is how well they'll function in old age. And of all the things we do, both physically and mentally, I guess people are more concerned about their losses mentally, rather than physically."

Researchers across the country recruited 2,800 participants over the age of 65, and divided them into four groups. One group was the control; they received no special intervention. A second group was given training in analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills, and another learned techniques to help them process visual information more quickly. "The last kind of training was the thing that most people are concerned about or notice when they get older, which is memory," Elias explains. "The idea there was to teach people strategies for organizing information, for imaging, using personal images, to remember information, to relax when you're trying to remember something, to relate it to something else."

Elias says that five years later, all the groups that received training had better mental function and retained their abilities better than the group that had no training at all. But surprisingly, those in the memory strategies group had the least amount of improvement of the three trained groups.

Elias says memory is a complex phenomenon and can be affected by diseases such as Alzheimer's. "There's a real difference between normal cognitive aging and something like Alzheimer's or other kinds of dementia," Elias points out. "The changes that take place inside the brain with normal aging are not necessarily the same kinds of changes that take place with some of these disease processes. So training might be effective for normal cognitive aging, but then for some of the disease processes, probably not."

Despite the different cognitive results, Elias says all of the trained groups reported better physical functioning during their every-day activities. The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.