Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science reporter, recently wrote that
- “With the nation’s 78 million baby boomers approaching the age of those dreaded ‘“where did I leave my keys?” moments, it’s no wonder the market for computer-based brain training has shot up from essentially zero in 2005 to $80 million this year, according to the consulting firm SharpBrains.
- “Now comes the largest and most rigorous study of a commercially-available training program, and it shows that there is hope for aging brains. This morning, at the meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, scientists are presenting data showing that after eight weeks of daily one-hour sessions with Brain Fitness 2.0 from Posit Science, elderly volunteers got measurably better in their brain’s speed and accuracy of processing.
We recently had the chance to interview Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski of the University of Southern California Andrus Gerontology Center, who led the IMPACT (Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training) Study Sharon Begley refers to in the quote above.
First, some context on this study, which is by far the largest high-quality study of its kind. The study was prospective, randomized, controlled, and used a double blind trial. 524 healthy adults 65-year-old and over were divided into two groups. One received an hour a day of training for eight to ten weeks, and the other spent the same amount of time watching educational DVDs. The IMPACT study, funded by Posit Science corporation, was performed in multiple locations, including the Mayo Clinic, USCF, and San Francisco Veteran Affairs Medical Center.
The discussion centers at his point on the initial results that were presented Gerontological Society of America (the study hasn’t been published yet).
Alvaro Fernandez: Dr. Zelinski. Thank you for being with us. Could you start by setting the context and providing an overview of how human cognitive abilities typically evolve as we age based on insights from your Long Beach Longitudinal Study?
Elizabeth Zelinski: Of course. The first concept to understand is that different cognitive skills evolve over the lifespan in different ways. Some that rely on experience, such as vocabulary, actually improve as we age. Some tend to decline gradually, starting in our late 20s. This happens, for example, with processing speed (how long it takes us to process and respond to information), memory, and reasoning. We could summarize this phenomenon by saying that as we age we get better at dealing with the familiar, but worse at dealing with the new. We can always learn, but at a slower pace.
Are there any specific tipping or inflection points in this trend, any age when the rate of decline is more pronounced?
We don’t have a clear answer to that. It depends a lot on the individual. In general it is a gradual, cumulative process, so that by age 70 we statistically see clear age declines. Which, for example, is a strong factor determining why older adults struggle to adapt to new technologies, but why trying to learn them provides needed mental stimulation. Now we know that genes only account for a portion of this decline. Much of it depends on our environment, lifestyle and actions.
Can you summarize what a healthy individual can do to slow down this process of decline, and help stay healthy and productive as long as possible?
One general recommendation is to do everything we can to prevent or delay disease processes, such as diabetes or high-blood pressure, that have a negative effect on our brains. For example, it is a tragedy in our society that we usually reduce our levels of physical exercise drastically after we leave school.
Let me then ask: what are the relative virtues of physical vs. mental exercise?
Great question! That in fact leads into my second recommendation. Aerobic exercise has been shown to [Read more…] about Brain Training: No Magic Bullet, Yet Useful Tool. Interview with Elizabeth Zelinski