Lifelong mental stimulation is linked to better memory in later life. What about using a computerized brain training? Does it work? Is it enough? What else can be done to maintain memory through life? A new study adds evidence to the debate.
The new study
This study was performed with 69 dementia-free older adults (average age of 82) living in retirement communities. 36 were randomly assigned to a brain training group and 33 to a wait-list control group. Their immediate and delayed memory as well as their language skills were evaluated at the beginning of the study, and then 2 and 6 months later.
The computerized brain program used was “Brain Fitness” by Dakim, which includes more than 400 exercises in the areas of short- and long-term memory, language, visual-spatial processing, and reasoning skills. The program was used in sessions of 20-25 minutes. Two months into the study participants had performed an average of 43 sessions (approximately 16h of training), and 6 months into the study, an average of 81 sessions (approximately 30h of training).
When compared to the control group (in which nobody’s performance improved), people who used the brain training program showed better delayed memory.
These results add to the growing evidence that computerized brain training can impact cognition positively. You probably remember the two major prior studies showing such effects:
The ACTIVE study by Willis and colleagues in which thousands of individuals aged 74 on average were trained for 10h or so in three areas: reasoning, memory and speed of processing. Compared to a control group, trained participants (especially those trained in speed of processing) showed improvements in trained and un-trained tasks. Of note, these improvements were still measurable 5 years after the training.
The IMPACT study by Zelinski and colleagues in which 500 individuals over 65 were trained for 40h using Brain Fitness Classic by Posit Science. Compared to watching educational programs (control group), trained participants showed improvement in trained and un-trained memory and attention tasks. Most of the improvement was still present 3 months after the training.
What else can be done?
In sum, computerized brain training can help stimulating and maintaining brain functions. It probably has targeted effects depending on what is trained. That is, if you train your memory do not expect to improve your driving skills (the same way as when you do biceps exercises you do not expect to get bigger quadriceps). Computerized brain training can thus be used to train specific skills.
To maintain brain health and performance in general, research suggests that more should be done though. Specifically, 4 essential elements have to be included in our lifestyle:
- Healthy diet: to provide brain cells with the necessary elements to function well (omega-3s, antioxidants, the right amount of sugar, etc.)
- Everyday mental challenge: to stimulate brain cells and create new synapses on a daily basis, which can be achieved by starting new hobbies and activities, reading, using your professional skills in new contexts if you are retired, etc.
- Physical exercise: to nurture neurons and connections thanks to increased release of growth hormones. Note that aerobic exercise seems to be the most effective type of exercise.
- Stress management: to limit the negative effect of cortisol (the stress hormone) on the brain, which can be achieved through relaxation, meditation, humor, positive thinking, etc.
Miller, K., et al. (2013). Effect of a Computerized Brain Exercise Program on Cognitive Performance in Older Adults. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 21(7), 655-663
Smith, G. E., …. Mahncke, H. W., & Zelinski, E. M. (2009). A cognitive training program based on principles of brain plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 57(4), 594-603.
Willis, S. L., et al. (2006). Long-term effects of cognitive training on everyday functional outcomes in older adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296(23), 2805-2814.