With increasing attention being paid to brain health for older adults and an increasing number of products promoting brain fitness in the marketplace, more and more researchers are conducting studies to determine what, if any, benefit cognitive training programs have on the older brain. A recent study of 209 older adults examined which specific areas of cognition showed improvement after the completion of a 13-week cognitive training program, and found that some but not all areas of cognition examined showed improvement.
The study’s participants ranged from 60 to 88 years old, with an average age of 70. These older adults were assigned to either the cognitive training group or an “active control group.” An active control group is one that also participates in an activity of some sort over the course of the study, which helps eliminate the possibility that observed improvements might be from the social contact or physical activity provided by participating in a study,. In this case, the active control group was brought together to watch instructional videos and answer questions about them while the other participants were doing the cognitive training.
Those taking part in the cognitive training participated in three one-hour training sessions per week for 13 weeks. The tasks in this cognitive training were modelled after the tasks in the Brain Fitness Program offered by Posit Science, and consisted of six exercises: comparing the frequency of two sound sweeps; comparing the size of two objects; matching syllables; matching rhythms; repeating the sequence in which objects were presented; and recalling details of a story as they were presented. The combination of these six tasks was designed to incorporate many areas of cognition. This study examined the potential impact on attention, working memory, verbal memory, and spatial memory. Working memory involves keeping things in mind and possibly mentally manipulating these things, whereas visual and verbal memory both involve recalling something previously presented to a participant. All participants were tested on these areas of cognition at the start and finish of the study.
When the researchers compared the cognitive training group to the active control group, they found differences in some but not all of the areas of cognition that they examined. Interestingly, they found no statistically significant differences in visual or verbal memory, the types of memory recall that most people think of when they hear the word memory and the type of memory loss most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. However, the researchers did find that after 13 weeks, the cognitive training group showed statistically significant improvements on tests of attention and working memory. The researchers also controlled for the initial cognitive status of the two groups and their age and level of education in an attempt to eliminate their potential influence on the findings.
While this study did not see improvements on recall in visual or verbal memory tests, it may be that there may be other types of cognitive training tasks better suited to producing statistically significant improvements in these areas. It may also be that improvements in these areas requires more than 13 weeks. This study adds to the evidence that cognitive training produces domain-specific instead of global cognitive benefits. (See this study as well.) Lastly, the types of tasks used in this study involved raises questions about how likely older adults are to continue this sort of cognitive training over long periods of time. Unless implemented in fun and engaging ways, matching tones, comparing sizes, etc. may not keep older adults’ interest, despite their interest in pursuing brain fitness. Moreover, the choice to pursue cognitive training should be weighed against the cognitive benefits that have been shown for other activities such as aerobic exercise. (See the discussion of “opportunity cost” here.)