A new trial funded by the National Institutes of Health has found that the benefits of cognitive training for older adults can last as long as 10 years. The report, featured in the January issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, details how training aimed at boosting older adults' skill at memory, reasoning and speed of processing slowed their cognitive decline and helped participants maintain functioning in daily living tasks over a decade.

"It's like going to the gym 10 years ago and doing some strength training, and you still have good arm strength 10 years later," explains one of the study's co-authors, Sharon Tennstedt, PhD, vice president of the New England Research Institutes. "You are maybe not quite as strong as you were then, but there is still benefit."

The study is the largest of its kind, enrolling more than 2,800 participants ages 65 to 94 from a broad range of educational, socioeconomic, and racial and ethnic groups. The researchers randomized volunteers either to receive 10 one-hour sessions of brain training over five to six weeks in memory, reasoning or speed of processing skills or to a no-training control group. At the 10-year follow-up, those with training in reasoning and speed of processing experienced less decline in those cognitive abilities compared with non-trained (control) participants. Participants in all three training groups reported significantly less difficulty performing daily living skills than did untrained participants.

The results imply that psychologists should encourage older adults to engage in activities that challenge their cognitive abilities. Consumers should be aware that few commercially available brain games have been tested adequately to support their claims of benefit. However, expected increase in consumer demand and market competition should result in more programs or games with proven impact, according to the study authors. In the meantime, they recommend older adults try any cognitively stimulating activity, such as solving crossword puzzles and playing cards.

"Maintaining cognitive functioning may become even more salient for the generation now moving into their 60s and 70s," says Sherry Willis, PhD, another co-author and a research professor at the University of Washington. "Baby boomers who are moving into old age are really becoming extremely aware that they may have to work longer. And this study speaks to the plasticity of cognitive functioning — that older adults can improve from cognitive training and they can maintain the effects."

— Kathleen Smith