Computerised exercise hailed as first shown to cut dementia risk

An MRI image of a human brain made by scientists at Harvard University. Source: Lichtman

Digital brain-training exercises have been hailed as the first kind of intervention recognised as able to dramatically cut the risk of dementia in older people.

The result of a 10-year trial were published in the Alzheimer’s & Demential: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions journal, which showed that so-called speed-of-processing training resulted in a 29 per cent drop if in the risk of dementia. 

Speed-of-processing training involved a very specific task that was designed to improve the speed and accuracy of the participants visual attention, EureakAlert reported. 

“To perform the divided attention training task, a user identified an object (i.e., car or truck) at the center  [sic] of gaze while at the same time locating a target in the periphery (i.e., car),” the report explained. “As the user got the answers correct, the speed of presentation becomes progressively briefer, while the targets become more similar. In the more difficult training tasks, the target in the periphery is obscured by distracting objects, engaging selective attention.”

The study by scientists at the University of South Florida followed almost 3,000 healthy older adults across the US over 10 years. The participants were divided into four groups – a control group, one that received instructions on memory strategies, one that received instruction on reasoning strategies, and one that were given speed-of-processing training on a  computer – over 10 sessions lasting up to 75 minutes each. The sessions were held over six weeks, during which time the participants were also measured on their cognitive and functional abilities.

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Smaller numbers of each group were also given four ‘booster’ sessions of their training at month 11 and 35 of the long-running study.

Their cognitive and functional skills were then re-tested at one-, two-, three-, five- and 10-year periods, and the researchers found that although there was no difference in the risk of dementia for the people who did the reasoning and memory training compared to the control group, the speed training group were 29 per cent less likely to have developed dementia. 

And the people who did the booster sessions of speed training saw their risk cut to less than 6 per cent.

Many publications hailed the findings as the first intervention that had been show to prevent dementia and as a breakthrough in dementia prevention, but others were more conservative, saying that it warranted further investigation but that the results were preliminary and relied on self-reporting of a dementia diagnosis or a cognitive assessment.

Others noted that brain-training digital exercises were big business – training used in the study is licensed by a company called Post Science and can be bought as part of the training program that’s available online – the which made it important to carefully replicate discoveries before pronouncing them to be definitive.

Do you do brain-training exercises? Do you find they help your mental agility in everyday life?