Late-life depression is a significant risk factor for dementia. Cognitive impairment, including memory impairment, is one effect of depression, which can also lead to further risk factors like inactivity and self-isolation. Cognitive training (CT) is a category of interventions based on neuropsychological theory that is used to improve cognition by improving the physical health of the brain. This takes place through cognitive tasks, such as memory exercises and problem-solving games, which hypothetically improve the functioning of particular systems of the brain. Studies have suggested that CT is helpful for improving the cognitive ability of healthy older adults, but until recently had not been used as an intervention for the cognitive effects of late-life depression.
A group of Australian researchers recently published a study that used CT and psychoeducation (education about psychological health and positive steps that can be taken for mental health) with a sample of older adults with mild levels of depressive symptoms, and a lifetime history of major depressive disorder (Naismith et al 2011). Using a waitlist control design, in which one group of participants received the CT treatment immediately, the treatment group showed clinically significant improvement in both verbal and visual memory.
Interestingly, the treatment did not show an effect on mood or problem-solving, supporting the theory that CT interventions work to promote specific cognitive pathways in the brain. Because there was an educational component in addition to the CT, it is unclear how much these improvements can be attributed purely to CT. However, other research suggests that educational interventions like the one incorporated in this study are unlikely by themselves to show such improvements in cognition. This study suggests that CT can be used to improve the cognitive health of older adults who are at a heightened risk of cognitive decline.
Naismith SL, Diamond K, Carter PE, Norrie LM, Redoblado-Hodge MA, Lewis SJ, Hickie IB (2011). Enhancing memory in late-life depression: the effects of a combined psychoeducation and Cognitive Training program. American Journal of Geriatric Society 19(3):240-248.