As discussed recently in this blog and in many others, Cognitive Training (CT) is an emerging method to improve the wellbeing of older adults. Based on theories of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to adjust in order to perform tasks throughout the life course), CT works to improve brain function by engaging users in challenges like memory games and problem solving. Such interventions have been demonstrably useful for individuals in their 60s and 70s, but have rarely been systematically tested among the oldest old, a population at very high risk for cognitive decline. A recent study tested the benefits of working memory (WM) tasks for individuals aged 80 and older (Zinke et al 2011).
The researchers assigned participants to a training group who performed a series of tasks involving WM, and a matched control group for comparison. WM is the ability to retain and reuse information in the short term, and has been shown to be important not only in short-term problem solving (navigation, following instructions) but also in managing emotions and social situations. This set of skills has been shown, on average, to decline in old age, but also seems amenable to improvement, at least in younger populations. To see if WM can be improved among the older old, the researchers provided the training group with ten short training exercises that involved remembering numbers, remembering and organizing images, and rhythmic tapping. Both the training and control groups were tested on these skills before and after the 10 sessions for the training group.
Significant WM gains were attained in the training group, particularly among those with lower overall cognitive functioning, who showed improvements in all tasks. This finding fits the “disuse hypothesis,” which posits that cognitive declines in aging may, at least in part, result from not using certain areas of the brain enough to retain high functioning. Gains were biggest in the area of retaining information, suggesting that longer or more in-depth training may be required to see benefits in processing information. Unfortunately, benefits were not seen in other areas of executive functioning not relating to the training, but such benefits might also require more comprehensive cognitive exercises than this study provided. Overall, this study shows that cognitive practice can improve mental performance in the oldest old, even among those with lower present levels of cognitive function.
Zinke K, Zeintl M, Eschen A, Herzog C and Kliegel M (2011). “Potentials and Limits of Plasticity Induced by Working Memory Training in Old-Old Age.” Gerontology, epub ahead of print [DOI: 10.1159/000324240]