Researchers found that giving a group of older adults a brief course of mental or cognitive training helped to improve their reasoning ability and processing speed, and hold onto the gains for up to 10 years, compared with a group of untrained controls. Plus, those who received additional training for another 3 years improved even further.

Cognitive decline is not uncommon among older adults and can seriously affect their ability to lead a normal life and carry out everyday tasks.

Study leader George Rebok, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, and an expert on aging and mental health, says:

“Showing that training gains are maintained for up to 10 years is a stunning result because it suggests that a fairly modest intervention in practicing mental skills can have relatively long-term effects beyond what we might reasonably expect.”

He and his colleagues also found the seniors who received the brief cognitive training also reported experiencing less difficulty in carrying out everyday living tasks.

Prof. Rebok says even small delays in impairment of mental and functional ability can have a big effect on public health and help reduce the rising cost of caring for older adults.

They report their findings in a soon-to-be-published issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The results come from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, which tested whether cognitive training sessions could help older adults maintain functional independence by improving basic mental skills.

This latest analysis is of 10 years of follow-up results from 2,832 participants whose average age was 73.6 years at the start of the study, when they were randomly assigned to one of three groups for memory, reasoning or speed-of-processing training, or to an untrained control group.

The participants who underwent cognitive training received 10 sessions, which lasted 60-75 minutes, over 5-6 weeks in small groups.

Those in the memory training group were taught how to remember word lists and sequences of items, texts, and themes and details of stories.

Those assigned to the reasoning group learned problem-solving skills that help with daily tasks, such as filling out order forms and reading bus timetables.

And the participants who received speed-of-processing training used computer programs to learn how to spot and find visual information quickly. This kind of training can boost scanning skills, such as noticing changes in traffic when driving or looking up phone numbers.

After 10 years of follow-up, the groups that received cognitive training reported experiencing less difficulty with carrying out daily living tasks, such as cooking, taking medications and managing finances.

After 10 years, 60% of the participants who had mental training were at the same level of functioning in carrying out daily living tasks, compared with only 50% of the untrained controls.

While memory performance showed improvement in the training group for up to 5 years after training, 10 years later there was no significant difference between the trained groups and the untrained controls.

However, reasoning and speed-of-processing training appeared to have a more lasting effect – trained participants still showed significant improvements in these skills, compared with controls at the 10-year follow-up.

Some of the trained participants also had four “booster” sessions just before the end of the first year, and just before the end of the third year of follow-up. These resulted in additional improvements in reasoning and speed-of-processing.

Prof. Rebok says:

Our findings provide support for the development of other interventions for senior adults, particularly those that target cognitive abilities showing the most rapid decline with age and that can affect their everyday functioning and independence. Such interventions have potential to delay the onset of difficulties in daily functioning.”

The researchers say more studies are needed to find out how such brief training can translate to such lasting effects on everyday functioning.

The team now plans to test whether more training over a longer period leads to even greater improvements, and also whether cognitive training can help older adults maintain safe driving skills.

Funds from various institutions, including the National Institute on Aging and private sources, helped finance the study.

Meanwhile in another study reported in October 2013, researchers showed that sleeping longer is linked to faster cognitive decline in older adults. They found people in their 60s and 70s who slept on average more than 9 hours a night showed double the amount of cognitive function decline, compared with people who slept 6-8 hours a night.