Do you have more than your share of “senior moments?” Unfortunately, they happen more often as the brain ages and the processing of information slows down. Those frustrating memory slips may show up as problems remembering where you left the car keys or the name of someone you haven’t seen in a while. Most minor memory slips are not a sign of dementia but a natural part of brain aging.
You may wonder if there’s anything you can do to improve your memory? A number of studies show physical exercise, particularly aerobic workouts, enhance memory, but there’s more than one way to get a workout. What about computer-based training programs that “exercise” your brain?
Why You Should Mentally Challenge Your Brain
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends staying mentally active as part of a brain-healthy lifestyle. These recommendations are mostly based on animal research that shows mice raised in a mentally stimulating environment have better brain health and are less predisposed to the human equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease as opposed to mice that live in less enriched environments. In the hope these results apply to humans too, brain games, puzzles, and exercises have skyrocketed in popularity as people turn to brain training as a way to preserve and even improve memory and cognitive function.
Computer-based training programs offer another approach to “exercising” the mind. Cognitive training is based on the idea that the brain is like a muscle. When you exercise a muscle, it becomes stronger, more functional, and physically capable. In the same way, “working out” the brain with computer-assisted exercises that work specific aspects of brain function such as memory, processing speed and reasoning may enhance the brain’s ability to carry out its functions. But is there proof of its effectiveness?
What Science Shows about Computer-Based Brain Training
In a double-blind study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, healthy men and women age 65 and over took part in one of two types of computer activities. The experimental group did auditory exercises designed to enhance their brain skills. Researchers designed these exercises to improve how quickly and accurately the participants processed information. The control group watched videos on various educational topics and completed quizzes on the content covered in the videos, but did no auditory exercises.
At the end of 8 weeks, both sets of participants had their memory skills put to the test. The researchers asked them to take a standardized memory test to determine whether their memory had changed after 8 weeks of computer activity. The results? Improvement in memory was almost double in the experimental group compared to the control group.
Computer-based cognitive training programs may also be effective for people who suffer from “mild cognitive impairment,” a condition where there are noticeable problems with memory and cognition, but the deficits aren’t severe enough to meet the criteria for dementia. In one study, older adults with mild cognitive impairment experienced improvements in memory and verbal learning after 6 weeks of cognitive training, 5 days a week.
Results from another study called the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study showed cognitive-based training improved memory for as long as 5 years after training and improvements in cognitive processing that lasted for up to a decade, so cognitive training may have long-lasting benefits.
The Bottom Line
Computer-based cognitive training has the potential to improve memory and cognition in people who already have cognitive problems and healthy people. It may be just as important to train the brain to keep it mentally fit as it is to physically exercise. Even better – do both!
Science Daily. “Improving Brain Processing Speed Helps Memory” February 11, 2009.
Center for Brain Health. “Study Finds Aerobic Exercise Improves Memory, Brain Function and Physical Fitness” November 12, 2013.
Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord. 2009 Jul-Sep; 23(3): 205-210. doi: 10.1097/WAD.0b013e31819c6137.
NIH National Institute on Aging. “Cognitive Training Shows Staying Power”