January 27, 2014

Cognitive Training Shows Staying Power

A grandmother helping her granddaughter slice a cucumber as her mother looks on.

Ten years after a training program was completed, certain cognitive abilities were still improved in older adults, according to a new report. The findings suggest that cognitive interventions could help older people remain independent for longer.

To test whether training could improve the cognitive abilities of older adults, healthy seniors were recruited from 6 cities between March 1998 and October 1999. The participants averaged 74 years of age and 14 years of education at the beginning of the study; 76% were female, 74% were white, and 26% were African-American.

More than 2,800 volunteers were divided into 3 training groups—memory, reasoning, and speed-of-processing—and a control group. The training groups participated in ten 60- to 70-minute sessions over 5 to 6 weeks. Some were randomly selected for later booster sessions. The researchers measured the effects of training on the specific ability targeted immediately following the sessions and at 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 years after the training.

To see whether training had an effect on everyday living, the team assessed the participants’ time and efficiency in performing certain daily activities. They also asked participants to report on their ability to carry out numerous daily tasks, including meal preparation, housework, finances, shopping, and bathing.

The latest, 10-year follow-up included 44% of the original sample. The study was funded by NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) and National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). It appeared in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

After 10 years, all groups showed declines from their baseline tests in memory, reasoning, and speed of processing. However, the participants who had training in reasoning and speed of processing had less severe declines than those in the memory and control groups. About 74% of reasoning-trained participants were still performing reasoning tasks above their pre-trial baseline level, compared to 62% percent of control participants (who received no training but benefited from practice on the test). About 71% of speed-trained participants were performing at or above their baseline level compared to 49% of controls. There was no difference in memory performance between the memory and control groups.

Participants in all the training groups reported less difficulty performing everyday tasks compared with those in the control group. However, the standard tests of function conducted by the researchers found no difference among the groups.

“Previous data from this clinical trial demonstrated that the effects of the training lasted for 5 years,” says NIA Director Dr. Richard J. Hodes. “Now, these longer term results indicate that particular types of cognitive training can provide a lasting benefit a decade later. 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.”

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References: Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults. Rebok GW, Ball K, Guey LT, Jones RN, Kim HY, King JW, Marsiske M, Morris JN, Tennstedt SL, Unverzagt FW, Willis SL. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2014 Jan 13. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 24417410.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) and National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR).