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Can we train our brains to fight cognitive disease?

Can we train our brains to fight cognitive disease? Can we train our brains to fight cognitive disease?

Maintaining cognitive health is important for the well-being of older adults, especially in reducing their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or dementia as they age. Stimulating the brain through cognitive training could be a method of treating those who already have mild cognitive impairment. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society tested cognitive training to determine how beneficial the medication-free treatment could be for patients with MCI.

grandmother reading with teenage granddaughterStaying mentally and socially active is critical for older adults to maintain cognitive function.

What is cognitive training?
Much like how physical activity improves physical strength and stamina, cognitive training is designed to exercise the mind to maintain a healthy brain. Some of these cognitive training exercises are digital, much like the study published in PLOS One that found a computerized brain training game improved cognitive function in seniors. The training can potentially improve brain functions, such as focus, memory and problem-solving.

How did the researchers test the treatment?
The researchers organized 145 adults with MCI into three groups. The first participated in cognitive training to improve memory and attention span, while the second group focused on psycho-social activities, such as practicing positive thoughts and well-being. The third group didn't interact with the researchers, serving as the control group. The first two groups met weekly for 120 minutes over an eight-week period.

Before and after the training was complete, the researchers tested participants on their immediate and delayed memory performance. They also performed follow-up tests after three and six months.

Results from the psycho-social and control group testing showed they didn't experience any improvements in memory function. However, the participants in the cognitive training group improved their memory scores by 35 to 40 percent, and maintained the same results over the six-month period. A reason for this may be because the participants reported using the training in their daily lives even after completing the sessions. It gave them new ways to remember things, such as visual associations for memory recall. Thus, the results support the claims that cognitive training can protect against mental decline. For older adults with MCI, this brain training could delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

What can older adults do today?
While cognitive training could be the future of preventative measures, there are other lifestyle changes older adults can make to keep their brains sharp. Psychology Today recommended simple habits to improve cognitive function, which include physical activity, meditation and creative endeavors. The Alzheimer's Association recommended mental activities that challenge the brain to learn something new. This could mean taking music lessons, reading or playing strategy games. Older adults with MCI will especially benefit from exercising various mental skills.

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