Thoughtful Lessons: Training may enhance intellect in elderly

Among physically healthy seniors, advancing age often takes a toll on memory and other mental abilities. There’s encouraging news, though, for those who want to boost their brainpower.

A brief training course in any of three domains of thought–memory, reasoning, or visual concentration–yields marked improvement on tests of these cognitive skills, according to the largest geriatric study to date of these instructional techniques. The enhancement lasts for at least 2 years.

“Improvements in memory, problem-solving, and concentration following training roughly counteracted the degree of cognitive decline that we would expect to see over a 7-to-14-year period among older people without dementia,” says psychologist Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Ball and her colleagues report their findings in the Nov. 13 Journal of the American Medical Association.

It’s not yet clear whether training-induced effects translate into improved thinking in everyday situations, cautions Ball.

In their study, the scientists recruited 2,832 men and women, ages 65 to 94.

They came primarily from senior-housing sites, community centers, and medical facilities in six urban regions of the United States. Participants were in good health and living independently.

These volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three training groups or a control group that didn’t receive any training. One course of instruction focused on ways to improve memory for word lists and stories. Another bolstered reasoning in problems analogous to daily tasks such as reading a bus schedule. A third coached participants to identify visual information quickly in computer displays that corresponded to challenges such as reading traffic signs while driving.

Each training course consisted of 10 roughly hour-long sessions over 5 to 6 weeks. Most who completed training received a refresher set of four training sessions 11 months later.

Immediately after the first round of sessions, 26 percent of memory-trained participants, 74 percent of reasoning-coached volunteers, and 87 percent of those instructed in visual concentration showed substantial improvement on the targeted skill. While most members of the no-training group showed no change or declined, a small number improved as much as those who had received training.

The proportion of trained participants scoring markedly above their starting value dipped slightly over the next 2 years but remained greater than the proportion of untrained volunteers who upped their performance similarly.

Refresher sessions enhanced training-induced gains in reasoning and visual concentration but not in memory.

“I think we can build on these results to see how training ultimately might be applied to tasks that older people do everyday, such as using medication or handling finances,” comments psychologist Richard M. Suzman of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.