One of the most feared aspects of growing old is losing the ability to think, the prospect of which can be even more dreadful to contemplate than our inevitable physical limitations. While there is currently no known way to prevent dementia, several studies have sought to identify methods of preserving or even improving mental function in older adults. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that specialized training in the areas of memory, reasoning, and speed of thinking helped older adults improve their abilities in these areas.

About the Study

Scientists from eight American research institutions studied 2832 adults aged 65 to 94 to assess whether training in memory, reasoning, and speed of processing would improve their abilities in these areas, and what effect this would have on their capacity to function in daily life. The subjects lived independently and did not have a history of mental illness or diseases that might affect their mental functioning (such as stroke).

The participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups:

  • Memory training – remembering mnemonic devices and recalling word lists or sequences of items
  • Reasoning training – identifying patterns in a series
  • Speed-of-processing training – quickly identifying and locating information while withstanding distractions
  • Control group – no treatment

Participants received treatments from trained professionals in 10 small-groups sessions (60-75 minutes each) conducted over a period of 5-6 weeks. Eleven months after training, additional “booster” training was provided to 60% of subjects randomly selected from each of the treatment groups. Booster training consisted of four 75-minute sessions conducted over 2-3 weeks.

The researchers tested the subjects’ abilities at four intervals: before training, immediately after training, one year after training, and two years after training. They used tests to assess the participants’ abilities in memory, reasoning, and speed of processing, and they also assessed the subjects’ abilities to perform everyday tasks, such as identifying information on medication and food labels, looking up telephone numbers, and responding to traffic signals.

The Findings

Compared with baseline levels, each type of cognitive training improved subjects’ abilities in those areas immediately following training: 26% of subjects in the memory group improved, 74% of subjects in the reasoning group improved, and 87% of subjects in the speed-of-processing group improved. In addition, booster training extended the improvements in the reasoning and speed groups.

In doing their analyses, the researchers controlled for factors other than training that could have influenced mental function, such as age, sex, and education level.

Despite the improvements seen in the memory, reasoning, and speed tests, the training sessions did not produce significant improvements in subjects’ abilities to perform everyday activities. The researchers suggest that this may be because many of the subjects were already functioning at their highest levels—that is, there may not have been any room for improvement. The relatively short follow-up period (2 years) of this study—one of its limitations—may have also contributed to this seeming lack of effect.

Another limitation of the study is the potential for the “re-test” effect. As evidenced by subjects in the control group, who did not receive any training but still improved their test scores, just taking a certain test again and again can help subjects improve their scores, and this may have lessened the true effect of the training.

How Does This Affect You?

The results of this study don’t provide a definitive answer on whether or not cognitive training can improve mental functioning—and, ultimately, quality of life—in older adults. However, they add to the increasing body of evidence that, just as staying physically active can benefit the body, staying mentally active can benefit the mind.

Many researchers believe that engaging the brain, with activities such as reading, writing letters, and solving crossword and other puzzles, may help keep the brain functioning optimally. While scientists continue to study how aging affects mental functioning, doing activities like these may help you keep your brain stimulated and your life interesting.