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Is Brain Training Worth the Time?

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Graphic of light in brain training

Chad Baker/Thinkstock

Cognitive training protects against declines in mental abilities as we age.

I love this term, “neurobics.” I picture a pinkish grey brain, swaddled in a leotard and legwarmers, bending and stretching to a 1980’s Jane Fonda tape. “Aerobics” might be a bit out of fashion as a workout trend, replaced by terms like “spinning,” “barre class” and “HITT,” but the basic concept remains sound. Just as vital is brain training, says a new study out from the American Geriatrics Society.  

The study looked specifically at older adults who had mild cognitive impairment, which is common in the early stages of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. Symptoms can include mild memory loss, difficulty completing tasks, depression and anxiety, and tend to worsen as people age.

Participants in the study were divided into three groups, who met weekly for two hours. One group received cognitive training, following a program called MEMO, which is a method that optimizes memory and attention span. Another group focused on psycho-social wellness, learning to focus on the positive aspects of their lives. The last group was a control group, which did not follow a program.  

The group who had done the cognitive training increased their memory scores by 35 to 40 percent, and maintained the scores six months later. They did best in “delayed recall,” which is remembering words 10 minutes after they are studied. Since delayed memory decline is a marker in Alzheimer’s disease, this was an especially important finding for the researchers. The participants had learned to use the MEMO training in their daily lives, such as using associations to remember their shopping list, or a visual clue to remember someone’s name, all of which helped them keep their training sharp after the formal study was over.

The psycho-social group and control group did not show any improvements in their memory or moods. The study shows that not only can cognitive training help protect against a decline in mental abilities as we age, it can even help people who already have MCI, say the researchers.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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