December 20, 2006 in Nation/World

Brain exercise helpful to seniors

Bob Lamendola South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Just as exercise strengthens the body, a new study has found for the first time that brain exercise strengthens the ability of seniors to think more clearly and perform everyday tasks needed to continue live independently.

Healthy seniors who had just 10 hours of classes to improve their reasoning powers reported having significantly less trouble than others with cooking, shopping and other activities, the study showed – and the benefits were still present five years later.

The study, in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, holds out hope that simple classes for the public could have powerful effects on seniors’ lives, said Sally Schumaker, a professor of public health at Wake Forest University.

“This is pretty remarkable. It tells us this is a feasible approach, that people will stay with it for a significant time, that it works and that we can make a difference,” said Schumaker, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the study.

“(The improvement) is not a huge one. But we never expected training to be a magic bullet,” said a study co-author, Michael Marsiske, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida.

Past research has shown that mental exercise can improve scores on tests, and that simple things like crossword puzzles and reading keep the mind sharp. But this study is the first to link brain training to practical improvement in daily life. The findings, Schumaker said, may one day help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.

The new study spent five years following 2,800 healthy seniors aged 73 to 74.

Researchers divided them into four groups: A memory group trained to remember word lists, a reasoning group trained to logically complete series of letters or numbers, a speed group trained to quickly identify figures on a computer, and a control group that got no training. The three training groups scored significantly better on mental tests and continued to do so for five years.

More important, the reasoning group saw less decline in the ability to handle daily tasks, such as finances, housework, laundry and bus and cab rides. Over the five years, the group declined 0.4 points on a grading scale where 0 means a task is impossible to do and 3 means a task is no problem. The control group declined 1.2 points.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email