Are Memory Training Programs Helping Older Adults?

There are many training programs designed to improve the memory of older adults, many of which are available on the retail market. Many individuals without any cognitive impairment use these programs as a way to maintain or improve their memory and other cognitive functions. These programs appeal to our beliefs and hopes for self-improvement, but do they work? A recent review and meta-analysis by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Massachusetts Medical School examines the effect of memory training programs on older adults without cognitive impairment.

For their review, the authors aimed to find all English-language publications with original data on non-pharmacological memory training among adults age 60 or better, published before January 2010. After searching the major online research databases, examining previous reviews and meta-analyses, and contacting authors of relevant studies, 402 publications were found. For purposes of comparison, all studies in the review had to include a control group and measured outcome measures of memory. After applying these exclusion criteria, the authors found 35 studies to analyze.

In addition to efficacy data, the authors were also interested in reviewing the strategies used by program designers, as well as information on program participants. Across the studies, the mean age of participants ranged from 65 to 81.9, and the training programs involved anywhere from one to 40 sessions, ranging in time from half an hour to forty-two hours. On average, the programs had a 90 percent completion rate, ranging from 56 percent to 100 percent.

The most common strategy used to improve memory were visual imagery, although most (71 percent) of programs used multiple strategies. In general, programs that used a greater number of strategies for training showed larger improvements in memory. This is likely related to the fact that the benefits of memory and other cognitive training programs tend not to be generalized to other functions. Because of this, programs that address a wider scope of strategies and cognitive functions tend to be more useful. In their meta-analysis, the overall effect size of these interventions was 0.31 standard deviations. Roughly, an effect of this size means that a study participant with perfectly average skills (or the 50th percentile) at whatever memory task was targeted improved to be slightly above average, at the 62nd percentile.

It should be emphasized that the various programs varied in their effectiveness, and that some appeared largely ineffective. However, this review suggests that memory training programs may be useful to individuals looking to improve their memory skills, and may even be useful as a public health intervention to address memory loss and other cognitive impairment.


Gross AL, Parisi JM, Spira AP, et al (2012). Memory training interventions for older adults: a meta-analysis. Aging & Mental Health, e-pub ahead of print.


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