Study: Brain training exercises can stave off dementia

By Boston Globe | Jan 13, 2014

A first-of-its kind study set to be released Monday finds that older adults who engaged in brain training drills retained measurable benefits up to 10 years later, suggesting that such interventions may help stave off impairments of aging that rob seniors of their independence.

The trial, which involved roughly 2,800 participants from across the country, including Massachusetts, is by far the largest and longest such study to date.

As baby boomers search for ways to stay mentally sharp, the popularity of brain games has soared in recent years, but researchers have decried a lack of rigorous evidence showing these interventions are effective in the long term.

Most brain games on the market involve computer exercises. But in the new study, researchers used paper-and-pencil tests that honed problem-solving involving letter and number patterns, in addition to computer drills that tested the ability to quickly distinguish an image among a constantly changing screen.

Just one computer drill used in the study is on the market, and it has been altered from the version used by researchers.

The latest trial found that nearly three-quarters of those who participated in reasoning exercises and information-processing drills still displayed those abilities a decade later.

Scientists not involved with the study called it unique and provocative, and said it unquestionably shows that older adults who receive brain training are able to maintain those skills over the long term.

Study coauthor Sharon Tennstedt, vice president of New England Research Institutes, said results of the brain training suggest that it helped participants carry out everyday activities as if they were about 10 years younger, allowing someone at 80 to function more like a typical 70-year-old.

"If these training interventions can have that kind of effect on preserving cognitive function, then there is potential for either delaying dementia or kind of attenuating it," said Tennstedt, whose Watertown institute conducts a wide range of scientific studies, mostly with the National Institutes of Health.

She stressed that the findings do not indicate brain-training is a way to prevent dementia, but rather to slow its arrival.