Mental exercises help keep seniors agile: study

Mental exercises help keep seniors agile: study

Scientists have been preaching the benefits of mental exercise to seniors for years, but a new study may be the clincher that people in their golden years have been waiting for.

The study found that a little mental workout goes a long way, and that a sharper mind can make it easier to cope with everyday tasks such as driving, bookkeeping, shopping and cooking that get more challenging with age.

"Our findings clearly suggest that people who engage in an active program of mental training in late life can experience long-lasting gains from that training," said Michael Marsiske of the University of Florida.

The volunteers in the study did a modest amount of problem-solving and memory enhancing training, no more than 18 hours in any given case. But the pay-off was dramatic in the short-term.

Follow-up testing showed that the mental improvements were sufficient to counteract the cognitive declines seen over a seven-to-14-year period in older adults without dementia.

Five years on, the volunteers reported that they had maintained the sharper edge that the training had given them in memory and problem-solving skills, and the speed at which they processed information.

What's more, the seniors who got the training reported less difficulty in performing everyday chores — such as doing simple arithmetic in their heads and looking up numbers in a telephone book — than a "control" group of pensioners who did not get the mental tune-up.

The results suggest that certain mental exercises can offset some of the age-related decline in older adults' thinking skills and that some of the benefits of short-term cognitive training can persist for as long as five years.

It's not clear how much this was due to study practice at home: the study did not look at this question, but there was anecdotal evidence that some of the pensioners worked on the skills they had picked up on their own time afterwards.

The other finding — the first of its kind — is that a mental workout can help maintain the grey matter needed to do everyday jobs. This is important because cognitive decline is know to precede loss of functional ability in older adults, the authors of the study said.

"Research to identify effective ways of delaying this decline is important because it may help individuals, our aging citizenry, maintain greater independence as they grow older," said Patricia Grady, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research, which funded the study along with the National Institute on Aging.

The findings come from a long-term study conducted between 1998 and 2004 and involving more than 2,800 American seniors between the ages of 65 and 96 in six US cities.

The volunteers were divided into four groups. One group worked on problem-solving tasks, another on memory-enhancing tasks (memorizing word lists and sequences of items), while a third was asked to identify visual information quickly on a computer screen in an exercise designed to simulate the job of recognising road signs.

A fourth "control" group received no training.

The study group that showed the most benefit, at least as far as real-life functioning was concerned, was the problem-solving group, according to Marsiske.

In an editorial accompanying the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina suggested that similar programs could be developed for the mass market.

"Cognitive training programs may give individuals a greater sense of control over the disturbing prospect of cognitive decline and have a beneficial effect on their quality of life," said Sally Shumaker, a researcher in the university's department of public health sciences.

 

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