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Seniors' Health: Brain training helps seniors improve thinking powers

Minimal investment of time yields benefits to memory and reasoning that last for years

Special training in memory and reasoning can improve seniors’ thinking ability for as long as five years after the sessions, and may even upgrade their ability to perform tasks of daily living.

Researcher randomly assigned more than 2,800 independent seniors to participate in three forms of “cognitive training” or no training sessions. The cognitive training involved 10 one-hour sessions over a five-week period. One group received verbal memory training, another received training in reasoning, and the third attended sessions aimed at improving the speed of visual searches and identification.

“Five years later, in comparison to control participants who received no training, participants in all three intervention arms were still performing significantly better,” says Dr. Michael Marsiske, study co-author and associate professor of clinical health and psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “What that means is that if I trained you in memory, much later your memory was still better than an untrained control. If I trained you in reasoning, five years later your reasoning was still better than an untrained control.”

Participants in all three training groups also reported less difficulty with tasks of daily living, but the improvement was considered significant only in the reasoning group.

Marsiske says the results are encouraging for older adults, and indicate that a minimal investment of 10 to 18 hours of training yields effects that last five years.

“If people are still holding onto the notion that you can’t achieve much learning in late life, that late life is a time of cognitive decline and there’s nothing we can do about it, I think that (the study) helps tie together what I would say is about 30 years of research now to suggest that not only can people learn new things in late life, but they can learn very effectively and successfully in areas of cognition that we think do decline – things like memory and speed.”