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Baby Boomer Brains Need Physical And Cognitive Training

March 17, 2015

Woman Doing Brain TrainingThe largest generation of people born in U.S. history is reaching several milestones of aging. Last year, the youngest of the Baby Boomer generation, the 77 million people born between 1946 and 1964, turned 50 while the oldest are just a year away from age 70. Over the next 15 years, about 8,000 Americans per day will reach the standard retirement age of 65.

With life expectancies rising from 70 in 1964 to almost 79 today, many older adults are living longer only to face the challenges of an older brain. Now, they not only need to exercise physically but also mentally to maintain an active, vibrant lifestyle.  With several new technology options available, including “brain fitness” apps, seniors need to know how physical and mental training will help them stay sharp well into their retirement. Two recent research studies discovered that a combination of both may be the best solution.

While better health care and disease management has allowed Americans to live longer, our quality of life can suffer from a mental slowdown, which can lead to more serious conditions including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  Worldwide, an estimated 44 million people live with dementia with projections that will grow to 135 million by 2050. In the U.S. alone, five million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.  Without any new treatment regimens, that number could grow to 16 million in 35 years.

While staying physically active has long been shown to help both the body and the brain, the advent of new brain training games and exercises has raised questions of whether they should also be added to an older adult’s daily regimen.

Recently, a group of Australian researchers looked at four options to improving cognitive skills; physical activity (PA) only, brain training (BT) only, a combination (PA+BT) of the two or doing nothing at all (Control).

They gathered 224 older adult volunteers, aged 60-85, and divided them into the four groups.  The PA group walked for 60 minutes per day, 3 days per week with strength training for 40 minutes per day, 2 days per week for 16 weeks.

Those in the BT group used the Brain Fitness Program and the Insight Program from Posit Science for 60 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

Combining both PA and BT, the third group were busy completing both the physical and mental training sessions for the same 16 weeks.  The control group received no planned interventions.

Before, during and after the training (baseline, 8 weeks and 16 weeks), all participants completed a battery of tests including the Cambridge Contextual Reading Test for Premorbid IQ, the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test for verbal episodic memory; Controlled Oral Word Association Test for verbal fluency and several computerized Cogstate tests. Cogstate tasks included Detection for processing speed, Identification for attention, One Back for working memory, Groton Maze Learning for executive function and Groton Maze Learning Recall, One Card Learning and the Continuous Paired Associate Learning for assessing visual memory.

In addition, a subset of the volunteers underwent a PET brain imaging scan before and after the training period.

As might be expected, but to date had not been shown, the volunteers who combined physical training with specific brain training showed the most improvement in cognitive skills, particularly verbal memory, after 16 weeks.

The combined group also showed significantly higher brain glucose metabolism in the left sensorimotor cortex after controlling for age, sex, premorbid IQ, genetic status and history of head injury.

The results have been published in Translational Psychiatry.

“This is an interesting finding because it shows that physical and mental engagement has positive outcomes that can be determined using validated cognitive assessments,” said Dr. Paul Maruff, co-author of the study and Chief Scientific Officer for Cogstate. “For me, it illustrates most the importance of doing multiple things to improve life engagement.  One hypotheses arising from this work would be that increasing social engagement, with physical and mental engagement would lead to even greater cognitive improvement.”

In similar research, known as the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER), a much larger group of 1,260 older Finnish adults, aged 60 to 77, took part in a two year program to look at the effects of active physical and mental intervention to keep cognitive skills sharp.

Half of the volunteers participated in physical training, brain training and active management of their health risk factors by health professionals.  The other half, as a control group, received only health advice.

Comparing their baseline and post-training neuropsychological test scores; the training group improved 25% over the two years.  Sub-scores for executive function and processing speed jumped up even more, 83% and 150%, respectively.

The research was published this month in The Lancet.

“Much previous research has shown that there are links between cognitive decline in older people and factors such as diet, heart health, and fitness,” said study co-author Professor Miia Kivipelto of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Aging Research Center at Karolinska Institutet. “However, our study is the first large randomized controlled trial to show that an intensive program aimed at addressing these risk factors might be able to prevent cognitive decline in elderly people who are at risk of dementia.”

When it comes to maintaining a healthy cognitive life after age 60, both studies confirm that staying physically and mentally active is the best plan for Baby Boomers.

Questions or comments? Please contact Dan Peterson