(San Francisco, CA) In a study published today in The Journals of Gerontology (Medical Sciences), researchers found that a brain fitness program measured initially for its impact on cognitive abilities in older adults also had a significant beneficial impact on symptoms of depression.
The findings are part of an ongoing study of older Americans funded by the National Institutes of Health and known as the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study. With 2,832 participants, the ACTIVE study is the largest community-based multi-site randomized controlled trial ever conducted that focuses on maintaining or improving cognitive abilities of older people.
The ACTIVE study randomly assigned participants to four groups: one group did computerized brain exercises, a second group took classes in memory strategies, a third group took classes in reasoning and a fourth group served as a control that engaged in no special activity. Groups that did an activity engaged in the activity for a total of 10 hours. Participants completed those activities by October 1999, and their outcomes have continued to be tracked and published in follow-up reports.
While earlier reporting on the study was on primary measures of cognition and secondary measures of quality of life, this new report on 2,036 participants is the first to focus on secondary measures of how cognitive training affects mood.
Researchers found that participants in the study who engaged in the computerized brain exercises, which were designed to improve visual speed, accuracy and expanse of processing, had significantly better outcomes in key measures related to mood in one-year and five-year follow-ups. Participants in the other three groups did not have similar beneficial outcomes on this measure.
The study used a standard measure of depression known as the CES-D-12, a 12-item scale for depressive symptoms from the Center for Epidemiological Studies. Researchers found that only study participants who used the computer-based brain exercises received some protection against worsening depressive symptoms as compared against the control group. In fact, those who used the computer-based exercises were 30% less at risk than the other groups.
Researchers hypothesized two possible reasons why the brain exercise group was less susceptible to worsening depressive symptoms. First, they observed that the group had experienced an increase in brain processing speed and other quality of life measures that may have made their day to day experiences more positive. Second, they observed that the attentional demands and rewards and the procedural learning requirements of the computer program may have stimulated the chemical system or other parts of the brain that affect mood.
“Earlier findings have shown that these particular brain exercises improve speed of processing, health related quality of life and ability to engage in activities required for independent living,” said Fred Wolinsky, PhD of the University of Iowa, the lead author on this study. “This study is important because it shows that a relatively small amount of the right kind of brain fitness training can change the trajectory of aging, even five years later, by helping people experience a happier life. In the end, that’s really what we all want for ourselves and our loved ones.”
The training used in the study is now commercially available for the first time as part of the InSight brain fitness program from Posit Science. Posit Science distributes its programs to the public through its website, through national insurers and through hundreds of classes at retirement communities, senior centers and adult education programs.