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December 20, 2006

Seniors Experience Long-term Benefits from Mental Exercise

Older adults who received 10 sessions of mental training showed long-lasting improvements in memory, reasoning and speed of processing five years after the intervention, according to researchers who conducted the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly study (ACTIVE). The study findings are published in the Dec. 20, 2006, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

George W. Rebok, PhD, co-author of the study and a professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Mental Health, explained that the mental exercises were designed to improve older adults’ thinking and reasoning skills and determine whether the improvements could also affect seniors’ capacity to follow medication instructions correctly or react to traffic signals quickly.

“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, PhD, co-author of the study and an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions. “The positive results of ACTIVE thus far strongly suggest that many adults can learn and improve well into their later years.”

The researchers report that, compared with seniors who did not receive mental training, participants in the three training groups—memory, speed of processing and reasoning—reported less difficulty performing tasks such as cooking, using medication and managing finances, although the effect of training on performance of such daily tasks only reached statistical significance for the reasoning-trained group.

The ACTIVE study is the first large-scale, randomized controlled study of cognitive training in healthy older adults. The study involved 2,802 seniors aged 65 to 96 who were divided into groups to receive training in memory, reasoning or speed of processing in ten 90-minute sessions over a five- to six-week period. A fourth group received no training.

Those in the memory training group were taught strategies for remembering word lists and sequences of items, text material and the main ideas and details of stories. Participants in the reasoning group received instruction on how to solve problems that follow patterns, an ability that is useful in such tasks as reading a bus schedule or completing an order form. Speed of processing training was a computer-based program that focused on the ability to identify and locate visual information quickly, skills that are used when looking up phone numbers or reacting to traffic signs.

When tested immediately after the training period, 87 percent of participants in speed training, 74 percent of participants in reasoning training and 26 percent of participants in memory training showed reliable improvement in their respective mental abilities. In addition, the researchers report that, five years after training, trained seniors were still outperforming untrained participants in areas in which they received instruction.

The ACTIVE trial provides evidence that a fairly modest intervention in practicing cognitive skills results in a relatively long-term causal relationship between “using it” and not “losing it.” The study authors are discussing with the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research how best to follow up these findings.

"Long-term effects of Cognitive Training on Everyday Functional Outcomes in Older Adults" was funded by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Nursing Research to Hebrew Senior Life, Indiana University School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, New England Research Institutes, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Florida.

ACTIVE investigators include Michael Marsiske PhD, University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions; Karlene Ball, PhD, University of Alabama at Birmingham; Jeffrey Elias, PhD, National Institute on Aging; Kathy Mann Koepke, PhD, National Institute of Nursing Research; John N. Morris, PhD, Hebrew SeniorLife; George W. Rebok, PhD, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Sharon L. Tennstedt, PhD, New England Research Institutes; Frederick W. Unverzagt, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine; and Sherry L. Willis, PhD, Pennsylvania State University.

University of Florida media contact: Jill Pease at 352-273-5816 or jpease@phhp.ufl.edu.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Lowe or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.