Brain Training Results In Older Adults Can Last For Years

A large scale study of older adults shows that specialized training in cognitive skills, like memory and reasoning, not only gets results, but the impacts can last up to 10 years.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Let's hear now about what really seems to work for older people looking to sharpen their cognitive skills and hoping not to lose them too soon.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has more on what a large-scale study found.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: It's common sense that older adults have a better quality of life if they keep their minds active. That's one reason for the popularity of, say, crossword puzzles. Jonathan King, head of the Cognitive Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging, says crosswords are fine, so far as they go.

JONATHAN KING: The thing you best do when you do crossword puzzles is you get better at doing crossword puzzles.

JAFFE: On the other hand, the study that King co-authored provided more than 2,000 people - mostly in their 70s - with training in cognitive skills that could apply to much of everyday life. One group took memory training. One group was trained in reasoning, and another in quickly processing visual data. The control group, as usual, got nothing. There were just 10 training sessions, and King says researchers figured the impacts would dissipate over time.

KING: But when we kept on retesting, first at one year, two years and up, even up to five years, we actually saw preservation of the training. It was therefore striking to us that when we now tested again at 10 years people really still were improved compared to the controls.

JAFFE: In everything but memory skills. King says that with study subjects now in their 80s, there may be physiological issues, like changes in the brain that memory training just can't overcome. And as time went by, all of the people who received training showed some declines

KING: They declined, but they declined less than if you had received no training.

JAFFE: Brain training has become a hot commodity. Millions of people have logged onto computer-based products designed to give users a mental workout. One of them, Lumosity, is an NPR underwriter. King says he's got nothing against the commercial sites.

KING: Except that in most of these cases, we really don't know how well they work. The question is how much emphasis you should put on spending money and time, as opposed to other things you might be doing, as well.

JAFFE: Like exercising, that's one thing that science has proved does have a positive effect on cognitive ability, so older adults can help themselves out by turning off the computer and taking nice, long and frequent walks.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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