July 25, 2016
Alice Park

A new study provides the strongest evidence yet for the power of brain training to reduce the risk of dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s

There has been a lot of talk lately about the role that brain training can play in lowering the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have looked at factors like education, social engagement, and the amount of new learning that older people do as possible things that may help.

But the variety of different ways that people studied this cognitive stimulation has left more questions than answers. Now, in the most rigorous study to date, researchers compared different types of cognitive training head to head and report that a speed-processing-based training can indeed lower rates of cognitive decline and dementia. The researchers were led by Jerri Edwards, from the University of South Florida, and the results were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association annual meeting on Sunday.

The study involved nearly 3,000 healthy older people who were randomly assigned to take a five week classroom-based training that involved either improving their processing speed, improving their memory skills, or improving their reasoning skills, and followed over 10 years. The purpose of the computer-based training was to help people take in and process information on the screen faster. The researchers manipulated how much time the people had to process the material.

At the end of the study, only those assigned to the speed-processing training showed a 33% reduction in the amount of dementia or cognitive impairment after 10 years compared to those who received the memory or reasoning training.

The training is actually available online in a commercial program by Brain HQ called the Double Decision Exercise (which licensed the training from the researchers who created it). “I think everyone over 50 should be start doing it,” says Edwards. “There’s a preponderance of evidence that this type of training has multiple benefits and the risk is minimal, and it’s not even expensive.”

In the study, the people were trained for five weeks and the effects seemed to last for at least 10 years. Exactly how often people should be taking advantage of the training, and how durable the effects are, still aren’t clear. But Edwards hope to continue to study that in future trials. For now, she says, it couldn’t hurt to keep your brain sharp by training it, like any other muscle, to take in and process information as efficiently as possible.