What’s the best way to keep your brain sharp – the answer will surprise you

We’re often told that learning a new language or skill can enhance our brain power and memory, but just as

We’re often told that learning a new language or skill can enhance our brain power and memory, but just as specific exercises help loosen knees and tighten pelvic floors, there are some things that just work best when it comes to our grey matter.

Researchers from the  Australian Catholic University (ACU) have examined the effects of using a specialised computer brain game and found that just one month of training helps older adults significantly strengthen prospective memory – a type of memory that is crucial for planning, everyday functioning and independent living.

What’s more, over 60s who played the cognitive-training game more than doubled the number of prospective memory tasks performed correctly compared to control groups that performed other activities such as music classes.

Prospective memory refers to the ability to remember and successfully carry out intentions and planned activities during the day; it also tends to weaken with age. 

Prospective memory accounts for between 50 and 80 per cent of reported everyday memory problems, yet few studies have attempted to train or rehabilitate prospective memory in older adults.

“As the world’s population ages, it is becoming increasingly important to develop ways to support successful prospective memory functioning so that older adults can continue to live independently at home without the need for assisted care,” said Dr Nathan Rose, lead investigator and ACU Psychology Research Fellow. 

Researchers developed a version of a computerised board game called “Virtual Week” in which players simulate going through the course of a day on a circuit that resembles a Monopoly board. Players roll a virtual die to move their token through a virtual day and have to remember to perform several prospective memory tasks, such as taking medication or taking their dinner out of the oven.

Fifty-nine healthy adults, aged 60 to 79, took the training, playing 24 levels of the game over a one-month period (three sessions a week, two levels per session). 

The difficulty of the game increased over the course of training in terms of the number of tasks to be completed per day, the complexity of tasks, and/or interference with prior tasks.  Pre and post training prospective memory performance measures were taken and compared to two control groups – one of which received a music-based cognitive training program and the other which received no intervention.

Researchers found large training gains in prospective memory performance in the group that played the game (relative to control groups). Moreover, these gains transferred to significant improvements in real-world daily living tasks such as counting change and following medication instructions. The researchers also developed a “call-back” task in which participants had to remember to phone the lab from home during their everyday activities.

The early findings are so promising that the researchers have been awarded a grant from the Australian Research Council, in partnership with Villa Maria Catholic Homes, to follow up on the study with a large randomised control trial.

Do you do any kind of brain training? Would you consider adding it to your daily exercise routine?