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'Brain Training' May Help Aging Brains

Problem-solving ability surpassed memory, study finds

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Jan. 13, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Elderly people who participate in "brain training" classes to keep their minds sharp continue to see positive benefits 10 years after the training, according to a new study.

Even if they took only an initial set of classes aimed at improving their ability to solve problems and react quickly, participants showed that the training stuck with them a decade later, the researchers reported in the January issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Those who received "booster" sessions during the following 10 years displayed even better mental abilities, compared with people who received no brain lessons at all.

The lasting mental boost that can be achieved by taking brain training is a surprise, said study co-author Jonathan King, program director for cognitive aging at the U.S. National Institute on Aging, a co-sponsor of the study.

"When the study first started, people had some idea you could get a short-term effect," King said. "I don't think anyone anticipated you could get a five-year or a 10-year effect."

There is a drawback, however. Problem-solving and quick-reaction training stuck with participants, but memory lessons did not, the researchers said.

"Memory training no longer has an effect after 10 years, but reasoning and speed-of-processing training still does," King said. "We know that memory training is more difficult to get positive effects during aging."

The study involved more than 2,800 people who were an average of 73 years old at the start of the study. They were divided into four groups. One group received no brain training, while the others were each trained in a specific mental ability during 10 sessions over five to six weeks:

  • The memory group learned strategies for retaining word lists, sequences of items and details from stories.
  • The reasoning group learned how to solve problems that follow patterns, such as filling in blanks from series of numbers or letters.
  • The speed-of-processing group used a computer program that trained them to identify and locate visual information quickly, including looking up phone numbers and reacting to changes in traffic while driving.

These classes took place a decade ago, and researchers found immediate improvement in everyone who took the training -- but only in the function they were trained on, King said.

Researchers recently revisited the participants to see if the training stayed with them, although less than half of the original group was available.

About 60 percent of the trained participants had either maintained or improved their initial ability to handle daily tasks such as using medications, cooking or managing finances. By comparison, only 50 percent of the untrained group had maintained or improved their ability to handle daily tasks.

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