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NIH Research Matters

January 12, 2007

Mental Exercise May Aid Aging Minds

Brief sessions of mental exercise can have lasting benefits for older adults, even five years later. A recent study of healthy seniors found that up to 10 one-hour sessions of mental training can delay an age-related drop in thinking skills and possibly protect the ability to perform everyday tasks, such as shopping, driving, making meals and managing money.

Picture of a grandfather assisting his son and grandson at the computer.

A scientific team based at six sites across the country examined 2,802 adults, ages 65 and older. The participants were all living independently and had normal mental function when the study began. Called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE), the study was funded by NIH's National Institute on Aging and National Institute of Nursing Research.

Participants were randomly assigned to four groups. A control group received no training. The other groups attended up to 10 training sessions, over a five- to six-week period, to improve a particular mental ability. One group received memory training, learning techniques for recalling word lists, sequences and stories. Another group practiced reasoning skills, learning strategies for finding patterns or identifying the next item in a series. The fourth group focused on mental speed, learning to identify objects shown for increasingly brief intervals on a computer screen.

The researchers evaluated all participants before and after the initial training, with a final assessment after five years. Some participants also took four additional “booster” sessions, based on their initial training, about one and three years after the first sessions.

ACTIVE is the first carefully controlled large study to show that brief mental training can have long-term positive effects in older adults. The researchers report in the December 20, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that all three treatment groups showed improvement in the specific skills taught two years after the initial training. By the five-year assessment, each training group performed better on tests in their respective areas than the control group. Participants who received booster training in reasoning skills and mental speed showed the greatest benefit.

"The improvements seen after the training roughly counteract the degree of decline in cognitive performance that we would expect to see over a 7- to 14-year period among older people without dementia,” said lead author Dr. Sherry L. Willis of Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers also found that five years after the initial training, all three treatment groups reported less difficulty than the control group in performing common activities, such as preparing meals and doing housework. However, the difference was large enough only for the reasoning group to prove it wasn't due to chance.

These results are encouraging, but longer-term studies will be needed to determine if mental exercises can bring lasting improvement to the activities of daily life.

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Assistant Editors: Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

This page last reviewed on December 3, 2012

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