Brain Training Can Have Lasting
Brief sessions of brain exercise can have long-lasting benefits
for elderly people, helping them stay mentally fit for at least
five years, one of the most rigorous tests of the "use-it-or-lose-it"
For people age 73 on average, just 10 sessions less time
than it takes to stay physically fit helped keep their
The brain training involved hour-long classes and included exercises
done on a computer. While it is uncertain if similar results would
occur with mental exercise done at home, other research has shown
that intellectual tasks such as crossword puzzles and reading
can help keep the brain sharp as people grow old.
The study is "the toughest test of these hypotheses to date,"
said Jeff Elias, chief of cognitive aging at the behavioral science
research branch of the National Institute on Aging, which helped
pay for the $15 million study.
The study appears in Journal of the American
Medical Association. It was led by Sherry Willis, a human-development
professor at Penn State University.
Age-related mental decline is expected to affect 84 million people
worldwide by 2040, according to an accompanying editorial.
Nearly 3,000 men and women in six cities Baltimore, Birmingham,
Ala.; Boston; Detroit; Indianapolis; and State College, Pa.
participated in the study. Most were white; about one-fifth were
They were randomly assigned to six-week training sessions in
either memory, reasoning or speedy mental processing, and were
tested before and after. A comparison group received no training
but was also tested.
About 700 of the 1,877 people who completed all five years also
got short refresher sessions one year and three years after their
The memory training included organizing a 15-item grocery list
into categories like dairy, vegetables and meat to make it easier
to remember and locate items.
The reasoning training taught participants how to see patterns
in everyday tasks such as bus schedules and taking medicines at
different doses and times.
The speed training had participants quickly identify flashing
objects on a computer screen. Those are some of the same reaction
skills used while driving.
Nearly 90 percent of the speed training group, 74 percent of
the reasoning group and 26 percent of the memory group showed
almost immediate improvements in scores on tests of the mental
functions they were trained in. The improvements in most cases
lasted throughout the five years of the study and were most notable
in people who got refresher sessions.
The comparison group participants also showed some improvement
perhaps just from the stimulation of being tested
but it was not as great.
After five years, the participants assessed their ability to
perform everyday tasks such as shopping, driving and managing
their finances. And the researchers rated the participants in
their everyday functioning.
Only the group that received reasoning training reported substantially
less decline than the comparison group. And only one group actually
performed better, in the researchers' opinion those who
got refresher sessions in speed training.
Willis said bigger differences probably were not seen because
the participants were all pretty healthy throughout the study.
Sheryl Zimmerman, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
researcher on aging, said the study is important even if it doesn't
show that mental training is a cure-all.
"The fact that a modest amount of cognitive training had ANY
results five years later ... is notable," said Zimmerman, who
was not involved in the research.