Mental Training Boosts Cognition and Openness to Experience
Older adults who learned cognitive training skills benefited 10 years later.
Posted Jan 14, 2014
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that as few as 10 sessions of cognitive training improved an older person’s reasoning ability and speed-of-processing for up to a decade after the intervention. If someone received additional "booster" sessions over the next three years, the improvements were even more dramatic. The findings were published January 13, 2014 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Dr. George Rebok, who was the lead author of the study said, "Showing that training gains are maintained for up to 10 years is a stunning result because it suggests that a fairly modest intervention in practicing mental skills can have relatively long-term effects beyond what we might reasonably expect.”
For the study the researchers created three intervention groups and one untrained control group with an average age of 73.6 years at the start of the study. These new findings are the result of a 10-year follow-up on a total of 2832 participants.
A Winning Triad: Memory, Reasoning, and Speed-of-Processing Training
Training was conducted in small groups in ten 60 to 75 minute sessions over five to six weeks. The team also found that a four-session booster training at 11 and at 35 months after the initial training sessions produced additional and durable improvements in the reasoning intervention group and in the speed-of-processing group.
I have written numerous Psychology Today blog posts on how mobility, staying active and exploring the world keeps the cerebellum strong which helps maintaining balance, proprioception, creativity, and fluid thinking. Please see a list of additional PT articles I've written on this topic at the end of this post if you’d like to learn more.
About 60% of trained participants compared with 50% of controls were at or above their starting level of function regarding daily tasks such as using medications, cooking, and managing their finances. Memory performance improved up to five years following the intervention. Reasoning and speed-of-processing trained participants showed significant improvements relative to controls in the trained skills even after 10 years.
Cognitive Training Increases Openness to Experience in Older Adults
A study from January 2012 found that a training program designed to boost cognition in older adults also increased their openness to new experiences demonstrating for the first time that a non-drug intervention in older adults can change a personality trait once thought to be fixed throughout a person's lifespan.
Openness to experience is one of five major personality traits known as the ‘Big Five.” Previous studies have suggested that the other four traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion) operate independently of a person's cognitive abilities. But openness—being flexible and creative, embracing new ideas and taking on challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits also requires cognitive function.
Navigating the world enriches the mind, engages the body and improves social connectivity, which is a fundamental ingredient to well-being throughout a lifespan. Remaining resilient and self-reliant in old age requires physical strength, joie de vivre as well as crystallized and fluid intelligence. The combination of mental training and openness to experience creates a winning combination.
The study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, gave older adults a series of pattern-recognition and problem-solving tasks and puzzles that they could perform at home. Participants ranged in age from 60 to 94 years and had the cognitive training tailored to match their own pace, but the getting more challenging tasks each week as their skills improved.
Gradually bumping up the challenge as your skills improve is the key to creating flow and finding the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety. Striking the perfect balance between challenge and skill is the secret to sticking with it and steadily improving with every type of training.
"We wanted participants to feel challenged but not overwhelmed," said University of Illinois educational psychology and Beckman Institute professor Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, who led the research. "While we didn't explicitly test this, we suspect that the training program—adapted in difficulty in sync with skill development—was important in leading to increased openness. Growing confidence in their reasoning abilities possibly enabled greater enjoyment of intellectually challenging and creative endeavors."
Conclusion: A Little Cognitive Training Goes a Long Way to Improve Quality of Life
The Athlete’s Way is dedicated to identifying daily habits that improve your well-being, happiness and performance throughout a lifespan. These new studies are exciting because they illustrate how a small amount of cognitive training can create a domino effect that improves your quality of life across the board. Additional studies will be helpful to fine-tune the most effective cognitive training for producing long lasting benefits on day-to-day functioning for older adults.
Dr. Rebok and his team are also interested in testing whether the training sessions can help older adults maintain safe driving skills, which is key to remaining connected to the world in non-urban environments. The research team at Johns Hopkins are also going to explore how more extensive cognitive training over a longer period could have even greater benefits on elders' daily functioning.
If you'd like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blog posts:
- “Mobility Is Key to Maintaining Social Networks As We Age”
- “Too Much Crystallized Thinking Lowers Fluid Intelligence”
- “Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Keeps You Sharp”
- “Can Physical Activities Improve Fluid Intelligence?"
- “Social Connectivity Drives the Engine of Well-Being”
- “Optimism Stabilizes Cortisol Levels and Lowers Stress”
- “Can Mindfulness Backfire?”
- “Positive Actions Build Social Capital and Resilience”
- “Exercising at a “Conversational Pace” Is Good for Your Brain”
- “4 Lifestyle Choices That Will Keep You Young”
- “Fear of Falling Creates a Downward Spiral”
- “What Daily Habit Can Boost “Healthy Aging” Odds Sevenfold?”
- “Why Does Overthinking Cause an Athlete to Choke?”