Recently, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a study that supported the belief that cognitive training can make a positive difference in our brain’s health. The authors of the study were from two university-based research centers in Montreal and Quebec City, Canada. Their study, entitled Efficacy, Durability and Effect of Cognitive Training and Psychosocial Intervention in Individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment, concluded that through cognitive training, study participants improved memory scores significantly, and those memory improvements continued over a six-month period after the study ended.
Measuring Brain Health
The study was a single-blind, randomized controlled trial that involved 145 older adults who met the criteria for amnestic mild cognitive impairment or amnestic MCI. There are a few types of MCI, and amnestic MCI is most associated with memory loss.
Study participants were randomly assigned to three groups – the group that received cognitive training, the group that received a psychosocial intervention, and a control group that had no contact with researchers and no interventions. The researchers provided interventions in small groups via eight two-hour sessions throughout the study. Memory tests were administered before training began, immediately after training concluded, and again at three months and six months after training.
One objective outlined in the study was to “assess the effect of memory training on the cognitive functioning of persons with MCI.” The study also looked at whether cognitive training would have lasting effects and whether the effects shown would generalize to daily life. The psychosocial group was added to the study to determine whether cognitive training and psychosocial intervention may have similar effects on memory.
Can we Improve our Brain’s Health?
One indicator of brain health is the ability to recall information. Results showed that memory scores only increased in the participants in the cognitive training group and scores improved significantly – between 35 and 40 percent. The improvements were measured by a “delayed composite memory score.” Researchers also noted the same improvements in month three and six after the trial ended. The other two groups did not see significant improvement; leading researchers to conclude that it was the cognitive training that improved memory.
What is even more interesting is that the participants who already had what was described as delayed recall experienced the largest improvement in memory scores. For the purposes of the study, delayed recall meant that there was a delay in remembering words only ten minutes after studying them. This type of delay in people with MCI is linked with Alzheimer’s disease development, so the fact that people with this problem saw the most improvement is hopeful.
How to Promote Long-Term Brain Health
While this was a small study, it was the first of its kind, and it supports other clinical evidence that cognitive training can have a real, positive effect on brain health. The study participants reported learning strategies from cognitive training that they used in their everyday lives. For example, they learned strategies to help them remember a shopping list. While the study only measured memory scores up to six months after the training ended, there is hope that continued cognitive training will improve long-term brain health.
Memory loss can be devastating for people who experience it. It can make independent living more difficult. Many people suffer from MCI as they age, but not all of them go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. We do not know yet what makes one person with MCI develop Alzheimer’s while another does not, and there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer’s. But researchers are constantly working on finding new and better ways to address both the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and the underlying cause. Clinical trials are researching effective medications, but so far, no one has found a medication that has broad effectiveness.
Drugs also run the risk of severe and debilitating side effects, so the risk versus benefits must be weighed before prescribing medication. With non-medical therapies, there are no physical side effects, which makes them appealing to many.
The study results provided evidence that non-medical therapy for those who have MCI can be effective. There have been other studies that showed a positive correlation between cognitive training and memory improvement, such as the 487-person IMPACT run by Mayo Clinic in 2009. So, if you’re wondering how to improve your brain health, it looks like cognitive exercises may help!