In a recent study published in the journal JAMDA, a team of researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London determined that online games that challenge memory and cognitive skills could beneficially improve daily life for older people. The team demonstrated specifically that an online brain-training package not only improved memory and reasoning skills but also the capacity to carry out routine tasks like shopping, navigating public transport, cooking, and managing personal finances.
Evidence from previous small-scale studies has shown potential for brain training in the improvement of memory skills; however, the results have been inconclusive. The new study, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Society, is the largest randomized control trial to date investigating the effects of an online brain-training package, and the first to assess the influence of computerized brain training on the performance of everyday tasks.
The brain-training package comprises three cognitive tasks, like balancing weights on a seesaw, and three problem-solving activities, like putting numbered tiles in numerical order. Researchers gathered data from almost 7,000 adults over 50 years of age recruited from the general population through a collaboration between the Medical Research Council, the BBC, and the Alzheimer’s Society.
All study participants were asked to play the online game for 10 minutes at a time, as repeatedly as they liked. All participants were also asked to complete a series of cognitive assessments, comprising evaluations of memory and grammatical reasoning at baseline, six weeks, and three and six months. Participants aged over 60 years were also evaluated on their daily routines, such as shopping, navigating public transport, and using the telephone.
After six months, the team found that the brain-training package led to significant improvements in scores on the test of daily living in people over 60, and significant improvement in reasoning and verbal learning in those over 50 compared to those who didn’t play the reasoning and problem solving games. The researchers also found these improvements were most effective when the brain training games were played five times per week.
A decline in thinking and memory skills is part of a healthy aging; however, severe cognitive decline is a well-known precursor of dementia, a condition that causes progressive loss of function and ability. Evidence has shown that people who have complex occupations or those who engage in activities that stimulate cognition (eg. puzzles, crosswords), as well as those who engage in learning new skills throughout their lives, tend to have lower dementia rates. These findings could have implications on how to preserve cognitive function in older adults and may represent an easily accessible and effective intervention strategy to help people reduce their cognitive decline risk later in life.
Dr. Anne Corbett from the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, said in a news release: “The impact of a brain training package such as this one could be extremely significant for older adults who are looking for a way to proactively maintain their cognitive health as they age. The online package could be accessible to large numbers of people, which could also have considerable benefits for public health (…) Our research adds to growing evidence that lifestyle interventions may provide a more realistic opportunity to maintain cognitive function, and potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline later in life, particularly in the absence of any drug treatments to prevent dementia.”
Dr. Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society, added: “Online brain training is rapidly growing into a multi-million pound industry and studies like this are vital to help us understand what these games can and cannot do. While this study wasn’t long enough to test whether the brain training package can prevent cognitive decline or dementia, we’re excited to see that it can have a positive impact on how well older people perform essential everyday tasks.”
The researchers are beginning a more in-depth study. Said Dr. Brown: “Finding ways to help people maintain good brain health and avoid dementia is a key focus for the Society’s research programme and we’re delighted to be funding the next stage of this research. We need as many people over 50 to sign up to help us test the effect of brain training over a longer time period.”
And Dr. Corbett added: “Today we’re launching a new open trial to see how well older people engage with the brain training package over the long-term. We want to investigate how genetics might affect performance to allow us to better understand how brain training could be used to maintain cognition or even reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.”