Brain training activity linked with reduced risk of dementia

16 November 2017

Researchers in the US have published results from a 10-year study into the effects of brain training activities on healthy older people.

The study found a possible link between one type of brain training exercise a lower risk of dementia after 10 years. Their findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions.

Dementia affects 850,000 people in the UK and there is currently no treatment for slowing down the progression of diseases which cause the condition. Scientists first reported outcomes of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Toronto in 2016, but they were published in print for the first time today.

The study involved 2,785 people with an average age over 73. Participants undertook specific cognitive tasks dedicated either to memory training, mental reasoning training, or training specifically relating to the brain’s speed of processing visual information. Delivered in small groups, the brain training tasks took place in ten, 60-75 minutes sessions over five weeks. A small subset of participants, completed at least 80% of their training at this time but also then received four, 75 minute “booster” sessions, 11 and 35 months after the initial exercises.

Participants took part in assessments of memory and thinking after one, two, three, five and ten years. Of the 2,785 people taking part, only 1,220 volunteers completed the full ten years of follow up. Volunteers were also asked to report whether they had had a diagnosis of dementia. Researchers found that 14% of those people who didn’t undergo any training developed dementia over the follow-up period, but this figure was 12.1% for those assigned to the speed of processing training. The other two forms of training did not impact dementia rates compared to the control intervention.

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK said:

“Dementia is our most feared medical condition, so there is a lot of interest in activities that could help maintain memory and thinking ability as we get older. We know that factors like diet and exercise can help to maintain a healthy brain, but there is growing evidence pointing to a role for mental stimulation and activities with less obvious physical benefits. While staying mentally active and socially engaged have been linked to a lower risk of dementia, evidence of the beneficial effect of brain training programmes has remained less clear.

“The association between speed of processing training and lower dementia risk in the study is on the very edge of statistical significance, so we need to be cautious about drawing too firm a conclusion from this finding alone. Dementia was not the primary outcome of this trial and so results are taken from a secondary analysis of the data. Although the study followed many volunteers for a long time, the researchers relied on participants to self-report their dementia diagnosis, a method that can be less reliable than clinical tests given as part of the study.

“The findings suggest a potential link between reduced dementia risk and a certain type of brain training in older healthy adults, but the mechanisms behind this association still needs exploring. The risk of developing dementia is down to a complex mix of age, genes and lifestyle, and research is unravelling how all these factors are linked so that people have the best advice on how to reduce their dementia risk. Remaining mentally active throughout life is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. A healthy balanced diet, not smoking, only drinking in moderation and keeping weight, blood pressure and cholesterol under control can all help maintain a healthy brain in later life.”