As lifespan continues to increase, we need to find ways to enable our brain and its cognitive functions to remain healthy as we age in order to be able to continue to live independently. Research shows that age-related cognitive decline is common, even in the absence of dementia.
A study published online in Cerebral Cortex in 2015 found that cognitive training significantly improves cognitive brain health, and has the potential to reverse age-related brain decline.
Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas at Dallas said, “Until recently, cognitive decline in healthy adults was viewed as an inevitable consequence of aging. This research shows that neuroplasticity can be harnessed to enhance brain performance and provides hope for individuals to improve their own mental capacity and cognitive brain health by habitually exercising higher-order thinking strategies no matter their age.”
In this study, adults 56-71 years old were involved in 12 hours of directed brain training. Measures of cerebral blood flow (CBF) and functional connectivity were taken before, during and after the training intervention, and compared with those of a wait-list control group.
The results revealed that participants who engaged in the training had significant training-related brain changes at rest: increased CBF, enhanced information communication across key brain regions, and expansion of the structural connections between brain regions related to new learning. These participants also showed improvement in two cognitive domains: strategic reasoning, or the ability to synthesize generalized meanings or extract larger ideas from lengthy input, and a measure of executive function that demonstrates the ability to abstract concepts.
Dr. Sina Aslan, founder and president of Advance MRI and collaborator on the study said, “The finding that global brain blood flow can be increased with complex mental activity, as this study demonstrates, suggests that staying mentally active helps reverse and potentially prevent brain losses and cognitive decline with aging.”
“Greater levels of brain blood flow are associated with higher cognitive performance,” said Dr. Chapman. “With upwards of 8% increase in brain blood flow, this research shows that participants are regaining measurable brain health.” An additional implication of the findings is the importance of developing healthy brain habits in early adulthood to prevent or postpone cognitive decline.
The researchers reported that, “Our principal finding was that strategy-based cognitive training has the potential to reverse some of the negative consequences of age-related functional and structural brain losses.” Previous studies have shown negative plasticity in older adult brains, referring to the age-related cognitive decline and degradation in brain function resulting from decreased brain use, especially of the systems that underlie efficient learning and memory.
Dr. Molly Wagster of the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, which co-funded the study, commented that, “…this research suggests that it may never be too late to participate in activities to maintain or even improve our cognitive health.”