Benefits of mental exercises for seniors persist 10 years after training

By Jill Pease

Older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training show long-lasting improvements in reasoning and speed of processing skills 10 years after the intervention, according to UF Health researchers with the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE, study.

The study findings appear today (Jan. 13) in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Dr. Michael Marsiske
Dr. Michael Marsiske

“Our prior research suggested that the benefits of the training could last up to five years, or even seven years, but no one had ever reported 10-year maintenance in mental training in older adults,” said ACTIVE researcher Michael Marsiske, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions. “One of the reasons that this is surprising has to do with how little training we did with participants, about 10 to 18 sessions. This would be like going to the gym for between five and 10 weeks, never going again, and still seeing positive effects a decade later.”

Participants who received the cognitive training also reported significantly less difficulty with daily living tasks, such as housework, medication management and shopping.

Funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research, the ACTIVE study involved 2,832 seniors aged 65 to 96 who were divided into groups for 10 training sessions in memory, reasoning or speed of processing. Training was conducted in 60- to 75-minute sessions over a five- to six-week period. Some participants were randomly selected to receive booster training 11 and 35 months following the initial training. A control group received no training.

Researchers conducted outcome assessments immediately after the training and again two, three, five and 10 years later.

The researchers selected training programs in memory, reasoning and speed of processing because those cognitive abilities are important for activities of daily living and there is evidence that they decline with old age, Marsiske said.

“If we can boost these basic skills we think we can also boost everyday functioning or help people maintain their independence,” said Marsiske, a member of UF’s Institute on Aging.

At the 10-year mark, nearly three-quarters of study participants who received reasoning training and more than 70 percent of speed of processing participants were performing at or above their baseline level compared to about 62 percent and 50 percent, respectively, of control participants.

While memory improvements were not sustained 10 years later among participants in the memory training group, older adults in all three of the training groups reported less decline in their ability to perform daily tasks. Future research may examine whether longer training periods or booster sessions may help older adults maintain gains in memory performance, Marsiske said.

ACTIVE investigators are currently studying ways to extend mental training beyond the training sessions to activities that older adults can do on their own, such as computerized training programs and workbooks that couples can do together. Marsiske and other researchers are also evaluating the effect of combining mental exercise with physical exercise.

“With the ACTIVE study I think we’ve permanently shattered the myth that old dogs, and older humans, can’t learn new tricks,” Marsiske said. “I think underlying that is a clear understanding, not just from our work, but from the work of others, that a critical thing to do as we get older is to challenge ourselves with new things. Oftentimes older adults will ask ‘Should I do crossword puzzles?’ And yes, those are a wonderful thing to do. But if you’re an expert crossword puzzler, late life is the time to take on some new challenge. So play video games or learn an instrument, because learning new things seems to be the real secret to maintaining mental functioning in old age.”

In addition to Marsiske, ACTIVE investigators include George W. Rebok, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University; Karlene Ball, Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham; John N. Morris, Ph.D., Hebrew Senior Life; Sharon Tennstedt, Ph.D., New England Research Institutes; Frederick Unversagt, Ph.D., Indiana University; and Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., University of Washington.

ACTIVE research was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute for Nursing Research of the National Institutes of Health under award numbers U01NR04507, U01NR04508, U01AG14260, U01AG14282, U01AG14263, U01AG14289 and U01AG14276.