Boost Memory, Reasoning And Mental Speed With Lessons
Brief mental training sessions can slow age-related mental
decline, a U.S. study shows.
Meaningfulness. When trying to remember things on a list,
embellish each one by linking it to something meaningful to
you. Example: if the word "dog" is on the list, link it to a
memory of your favorite dog.
The finding comes from a five-year study of more than 2,800
Americans aged 65 to 94.
Researchers at six U.S. institutions gave these seniors a
brief series of "cognitive training" sessions. The training
was short — just 10 one-hour sessions for most participants,
with eight booster sessions for some. But the benefits lasted
at least five years, says study researcher Michael Marsiske,
Ph.D., of the University of Florida.
"If you have any concerns you cannot learn new things late in
life, put those away," Marsiske tells WebMD. "If people put
effort into learning new and challenging things after age 65,
they can grow in performance. And they can maintain those
It's an elegantly designed study, says Sally A. Shumaker,
Ph.D., professor of public health science and associate dean
of research at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.,
who was not involved in the study. Her editorial accompanies
the report from Marsiske and colleagues in the Dec. 20 issue
of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
"The general note here is that we need to stay mentally
active, just as we need to stay physically active," Shumaker
tells WebMD. "I can imagine a time when, in public libraries
and senior centers, there will be computers you can sit at and
do this training every other day or so and slow the process of
normal cognitive aging."
Marsiske and colleagues randomly divided the seniors into four
groups. One group got 10 memory training sessions. Another
group got reasoning skill training. A third group got mental
speed training. And a fourth group got no training at all for
In addition, some of the people in each training group got
booster sessions 11 and 35 months after their initial
training. During memory training, seniors learned four
strategies to help them remember better:
Organization. Put items on a list into categories.
Example: if "hamburger" and "chair" are on a list, put them
into categories such as "food" and "furniture." Remembering
the categories will cue you to remember the items themselves.
Visualization. The trick here is not just to memorize a
word, but to create a detailed image of it in your mind.
Example: If the word is "dog," think of what a dog feels,
looks, and smells like.
Association. Link items on a list by associating them in a
kind of a story. So if the words on the list are "dog" and
"apple," think of a dog biting an apple and spitting it out
because he doesn't like it.
During reasoning training, seniors learned to analyze new
material and reach a conclusion about it. For example, a
training task might be to analyze a series of letters —A,L,B,A,M,B,A,
for instance—and predict the next letter. By regrouping the
series into triplets — A,L,B and A,M,B and A ... — it becomes
clear that the letter between "A" and "B" is advancing
alphabetically. So the next letter must be "N."
During processing training, seniors sat at computer screens
that flashed an image at them. As training advanced, the image
became more and more complex. This trained the person to take
in more and more information at a single glance — a skill
necessary for real-life tasks such as driving.
The researchers found that seniors who underwent each type of
training reported less difficulty in performing their
day-to-day tasks. This finding was significant only for those
who got reasoning training, but the effect size (about 70
percent less difficulty in daily living tasks) was similar in
the other groups.
However, when independent observers tested the seniors on
their ability to perform tasks, they found that only those who
got booster sessions did better than untrained seniors did.
Marsiske says this means there's more to daily living than
"Cognition is important, but it is not all you need," he says.
"Take food preparation, for example. Can I find the food, plan
the recipe, and lay out utensils? That's cognition. But there
are also things like dealing with a spouse who may not want
dinner cooked that night. So cognition is not the only thing
that is important."
Exactly what should seniors do to keep their minds sharp?
Marsiske and Shumaker agree that more study is needed to learn
exactly what training is best, and how often seniors should do
But the study shows doing something is better than doing
"Older adults, people 65 and older, can actually experience
new learning," Marsiske says. "Those gains are not overnight
successes that go away the next day. We see benefits five
"Certainly reading or doing brain teasers is not going to do
harm — and has a good chance of giving lasting benefit,"
Shumaker says. "If we challenge our minds — play crossword
puzzles or Scrabble, for example — this study now shows that
it does in fact improve memory and that this improvement can