Some aspects of cognition, such as visual attention, are suspected to decline in older age. However, specialized alertness training may help to counteract this effect.
In a study published in Psychological Science, 75 older adults were assigned to one of three groups: alertness training, cognitive demand, or no intervention control. Participants were about 69 years of age on average. The alertness training consisted of watching a video simulation of driving a motorcycle, which required participants to monitor the video and press a key as fast as possible when an obstacle appeared along the road. The cognitive demand task did not test reaction time, but required participants to indicate when an image appeared on-screen that matched a previously presented image. Training sessions were about 45 minutes long for both groups, and participants completed 16 sessions over six weeks. The control group did not participate in any activity for six weeks.
To test the effects of the intervention, all participants completed a visual processing speed task at baseline and post-intervention. In this task, participants had to report as many letters as possible from a series of letters that had briefly appeared on-screen. The task did not require quick responses, but it did test perceptual capabilities. It was hypothesized that alertness training would not only improve reaction times to obstacles in the road, but also enhance older adults’ visual processing speed more generally.
This hypothesis turned out to be confirmed. While both the alertness training group and the cognitive demand group showed significant improvements in their respective tasks, only the alertness training group had improved visual processing speed by the end of the intervention. The control group also showed no improvement in this task.
Visual processing speed tends to decline in older age. However, participating in regular computerized training sessions, similar to the training in this study, may help to counteract this decline. The next step will be to explore how this type of training impacts performance in real-world activities.
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