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New Research Links Brain Training Exercise to Dementia Prevention


Image: The current version of the “speed training” software, now called Double Decision and produced by the company Posit Science. (Courtesy of Posit Science)

By Eric Schoch

In a new study reported in the journal Alzheimer & Dementia Translational Research and Clinical Interventions, aging research specialists have identified for the first time a form of mental exercise that can reduce the risk of dementia.

Indiana University School of Medicine Professor of Clinical Psychology Frederick W. Unverzagt, PhD, said results of the multi-site study of 2,802 older adults demonstrated that cognitive training, called speed of processing, showed benefits up to 10 years after study participants underwent the mental exercise program.

Read on for a Q&A with Dr. Unverzagt, who explains what the study findings mean.

Q:  You and your colleagues found that a brain exercise called speed of processing reduced the risk of dementia in older people, and other types of exercises might be beneficial as well. Does this mean that most of us should do these kinds of exercises — especially the speed of processing — that they may help us avoid or delay dementia?

Dr. Unverzagt: Our data suggests that it could have a protective effect, and as long as the exercises are fun and engaging for you, there’s an indication it could be helpful. On the other hand, if they make you nervous, or get you depressed, don’t do them.

Q: Aside from whether someone wants to invest in doing these exercises, does this support the more general advice that staying mentally active is important as you get older?

A: I believe it does. It’s completely consistent with a large literature that talks about the beneficial effects of engagement, broadly considered, from an occupational standpoint, interpersonal engagement, leisure activity engagement. All of that epidemiological research has found support for the idea that those things are helpful to brain health, and in terms of risk for later development of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, engagement with those things is associated with a lower risk. It’s quite consistent with that literature.

Q: Any thoughts on why the speed of processing approach might have been more beneficial?

A: Our understanding is that the type of processing used for that training operates through different memory system. There’s an explicit memory system and a procedural system. The explicit system is conscious learning, like being in a classroom, listening to content come in, drilling on it, trying to retain it.

The speed of processing system is procedural. You get better at something by dint of doing it – over and over and over again. It is a different network of brain regions that are involved, and it may be that is part of the puzzle. And it may be that the adaptive part of the training – the part that’s like a computer game – interacts with that.

Q: In your study, the speed of processing training not only targeted a different type of thinking, but also used different methodology that was similar to computer games. Could the benefit of that training be from the methodology as much as the type of cognition that it targeted?

A: Our study can’t separate those. That would be an area to explore in future research.

Q: Are there future studies for which people can volunteer?

A: Yes, we and other researchers at IU School of Medicine are conducting several studies in this area:

  • One we call Cognitive and Aerobic Resilience for the Brain – CARB – is combining speed of processing training with exercise. For information on the study call 317-963-2561, email, or visit the study website.
  • A study called MINDSpeed is looking at the impact of incorporating dietary changes.
  • A third study called IMPROVE – Improving Recovery and Outcomes Everyday after the ICU – is looking at the potential benefits of cognitive training for people who have persistent problems after having suffered delirium while in the intensive care unit.

Image: The current version of the “speed training” software, now called Double Decision and produced by the company Posit Science. (Courtesy of Posit Science)

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Andrea Zeek

Assistant Director of Research Communications

Andrea works closely with IU School of Medicine researchers, the Executive Associate Dean for Research Affairs, and her colleagues in the Office of Strategic Communications to elevate the school's research reputation.