10 Hours Of Brain Training Keeps Elderly Sharper Even 10 Years Later, Study Finds

Jan 13, 2014

Scientists have long known that brain training can help older adults stay sharp, but a new study co-authored by a Seattle scientist shows those benefits also have remarkable staying power.

The advantages from just a little bit of training — about 10 total hours — can last at least a full decade, according to a large national study called the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE study. 

Some 2,832 healthy, older adults trained in either memory, reasoning or speed-of-processing skills, or got no training as part of a control group.

By 10 years later, members of all the subgroups had slipped somewhat, but the new findings show the reasoning and speed-of-processing groups deteriorated significantly less.

University of Washington research professor Sherry Willis, who designed some of the training materials, says the study shows people can affect their risk of cognitive decline.

“I’m sorry, you can’t become a mental couch potato. Even if you retire, you’ve got to stay cognitively active,” she said.

Which Training Activities Work?

Training activities included things like memorization and divided-attention tasks. The “speed-of-processing” training, useful in fast-paced decision-making tasks like driving, was later licensed by a commercial company. (You can see it here.)

Things like Sudoku help, too, but Willis said it’s probably less important what you do, just that you do something — or better yet, multiple things.

“Some people build into their life using the stairs rather than the elevator. Well, you could try to remember things rather than writing them down,” Willis said. “Say, I won’t always use that crutch of just writing my grocery list down. I’ll really try to remember it when I get to the store.”

Help With Daily Tasks

Researchers were also interested not just in whether the training helped people do better on tests years later; they wanted to know if training helps people with the tasks of daily life.

“We want to see if this training has any effect on people’s ability to do the tasks they need to stay independent. The critical thing is that we keep the baby boomers functioning independently, and not in nursing homes until well into old age,” Willis said.

The participants, most now in their 80s, reported being better able to cope with daily tasks like using the phone or doing housework. Separate tests did not confirm the benefits people believe they’ve gotten, so Willis said more study is needed. The purely cognitive advantages were more clear-cut.

The study looked at the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging, not at dementia or Alzheimer’s. It was funded by subsidiaries of the National Institutes of Health and the findings are out in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.