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Study: Mental quickness exercises can lower risk of dementia

This screenshot shows part of a computer brain-training exercise that asks participants to quickly identify objects like the two vehicles in the center and stay focused on them, even as distracting images like the road signs around the edges try to throw them off. During a study on how such exercises can reduce the risk of dementia, the exercises got more difficult as people mastered them. [Photo courtesy of USF]
Published Nov. 16, 2017

Where did I leave my keys?

As we age, it can take longer to answer a question like that.

Humans begin to lose cognitive ability at age 25. Dementia, or the decline of memory most commonly seen in aging adults, takes hold early on and is gradual, but accelerates in the seventh or eighth decade of our lives.

However, a local researcher and the lead author on a ground-breaking medical study has found a way to reduce the risk of dementia by a remarkable 29 percent. The answer? Computer games.

Computerized brain-training exercises studied by Jerri Edwards, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the University of South Florida, are the first intervention of any kind to reduce the risk of dementia in older adults, according to the study, just published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions.

The study followed more than 2,800 healthy senior adults in six locations for 10 years as they aged from 74 to 84, on average. During that time they participated in exercises, and were divided into groups.

One group received regular instruction on ways to improve memory, another focused on reasoning and recognizing patterns. A third group used computers to focus on visual processing and how quickly they could identify an answer to a question.

The participants showed up for sessions and were assessed at different times over the years on their cognitive and other abilities.

Researchers compared the three groups to a control group of similarly aged people who received no training. They found no real difference in the risk of dementia for people in the memory or reasoning training groups. However, the risk dropped 29 percent for those who participated in the computerized speed-training.

One of the takeaways: Adults, even in their middle-aged years, should begin their own speed exercises as a preventative measure before they get older, Edwards said.

"This is a preventative method," she said. "By the time we're treating dementia, it's too late."

She said she hopes the study will lead to more research on brain training exercises.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is one of the most successful to date, said Adam Woods, an assistant professor in the department of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida.

"We have funded NIH grants here at UF based on those studies," he said. "It's one of the only practices which could really transfer the training you get in the study to the real world."

The computerized brain-training exercises look similar to video or computer games. But Edwards said they're not games at all.

"They're not necessarily fun and there's no goal to win," she said. "We are studying their mental quickness."

Participants in the speed-training group had to quickly identify objects and stay focused on them, even as distracting images tried to throw them off. As people mastered these tasks, the exercises became more difficult.

"With practice, they would begin to get better," Edwards said.

Edwards and others on the research team found that those who completed more training sessions on the computer had even lower risk of dementia.

This kind of digital exercise was originally developed by Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama Birmingham and Dan Roenker of Western Kentucky University, two of Edwards' mentors in psychology. It's now licensed to a company called Posit Science Corp., which markets similar exercises to consumers and is available to purchase online at BrainHQ.com. The exercises have been used in more than 18 clinical trials in older adults for studying cognitive and functional abilities.

"The tools they used in (the study) are amazing," Woods said. "The speed of processing changes so much as we age, like a number of things, but how fast we can respond to things is extremely important. In the study, they queried the driving records of these participants and found that they had less accidents and violations versus the control group."

Edwards presented the preliminary results of the study last year to much fanfare at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Toronto. The study — by Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE — made national headlines shortly after.

Edwards now is working on another study at USF looking into music training as a cognitive intervention for older adults. It's being funded by a $2.25 million grant from the NIH's National Institute on Aging.

"There is evidence that shows older musicians experience less or a slower decline," she said.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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