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Research Shows Promise for Aging Brains

New research suggests aging minds can be trained to think smart and act younger.

Geralt/Pixabay, used with permission.
Source: Geralt/Pixabay, used with permission.

In a small study of older adults, published in the February 2018 issue of the professional journal Neurobiology of Aging, researchers at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, Dallas, looked at the effects of Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), a higher-order cognitive training program, on cognitive processing speed and lower-order cognitive functions. They found that using higher-order approaches (such as creative thinking, analysis, critical thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving) improves processing speed and slows down the decline of lower-order cognitive functions associated with normal aging, such as memory and comprehension.

Fifty-seven study participants—normally healthy men and women ranging in age from 56 to 71—were divided into three groups: a cognitive training group, a physical exercise group, and a wait-listed group. A physical exercise group was part of the study because aerobic exercise has been linked to changes in the brain that lead to improvements in cognitive processing speed. Over the course of the 12-week study, this group exceeded standard recommendations for getting at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. Those participants who received cognitive training were introduced to SMART strategies in hourly, once-a-week sessions over the course of 12 weeks, and encouraged to use these strategies while performing mental tasks throughout each day. They also received additional relevant homework assignments.

SMART strategies included filtering information to reduce the amount of stimulation coming in at one time, excluding nonessential details, blocking distractions, applying information to familiar real-life situations, and developing alternative perspectives and solutions. Simple exercises included reading an article and deleting unimportant or irrelevant information, rewriting information in their own words and, given a problematic set of circumstances, coming up with creative and alternative solutions. Participants would then discuss how these strategies could be applied to real-life everyday situations. Using these strategies, study participants learned to focus their attention while eliminating irrelevant information, interpret information in a broader context, find multiple ways to approach mental tasks, and minimize their fear of failure or the unknown.

In this study, higher order cognitive training was significantly more effective at improving processing speed than aerobic exercise, which has long been associated with improved processing speed and cognition. In fact, fMRIs used throughout the study indicated a decrease in processing time in both the exercise and wait-listed groups. The researchers point out, however, that brain imaging studies from previous studies have found that it could take a year for cognitive changes associated with exercise to show up in older men and women. As is the case with all early research, however, larger clinical studies are necessary to confirm the more immediate brain-boosting potential of higher-order cognitive training.


Motes MA, Yezhuvath US, Aslan S, et al. Higher-order cognitive training effects on processing speed-related neural activity: a randomized trial. Neurobiology of Aging. February 2018; 62:72-81

Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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