Brain-training game could have significant impact on dementia

It is estimated that 47 million people worldwide are affected by dementia, and this number is expected to rise to 75 million by 2030. (Photo: pixabay.com)

A recent study has been praised as a "breakthrough" in dementia prevention, after a team of researchers found that a brain-training exercise can lower the risk of the condition by more than a quarter.

The study — which followed more than 2,800 older adults for a decade — reveals how the brain-training intervention known as "speed-of-processing training" reduced participants' risk of dementia by 29 percent. The intervention was developed by Dr. Karlene Ball, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Dr. Dan Roenker, of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, and the study results were recently published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions.

Dementia is a generic term for a decline in cognitive functions — such as learning, memory, and reasoning — that impairs a person's ability to perform day-to-day tasks. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for around 60–80 percent of all cases. It is estimated that 47 million people worldwide are affected by dementia, and this number is expected to rise to 75 million by 2030.

However, research suggests that people may protect themselves against cognitive decline and dementia through brain training. Scientists now know that the brain can adapt to change at any age, and that such adjustments can be either beneficial or harmful. This process is known as "neuroplasticity." Brain training aims at strengthening neural connections in a way that maintains or increases cognitive functioning.

The ACTIVE Study

The research team, led by Dr. Ball, Dr. Roenker and their associates, launched The Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) Study, which is the largest study of cognitive training to date. Part-funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the study included a total of 2,802 adults from the United States with an average age of 74.

Participants were randomized to one of three brain-training groups or to a control group, members of which did not receive cognitive training. The first group was given instructions on strategies to help boost memory, the second received instructions on strategies to improve reasoning skills, and the third group received individual speed-of-processing training, which was developed by the researchers.

The speed-of-processing training is a task that aims to improve a user's visual attention — that is, the speed and accuracy with which a person can identify and remember objects in front of them. The speed-of-processing training involves a computer game called "Double Decision," wherein the user is asked to spot an object, such as a car, in the center of their gaze, while also identifying an object in their peripheral vision, such as a road sign. As the game goes on, the user is given less time to spot each object, and distractors are added to the screen to make it more challenging.

Dementia risk reduced by 29 percent

The researchers found that the incidence of dementia was highest among the control group, at 10.8 percent. Among participants who completed at least 15 sessions of the memory and reasoning training, dementia incidence was 9.7 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively. But subjects who completed the speed-of-processing training were found to have a significantly lower incidence of dementia, at 5.9 percent.

The team calculated that the speed-of-processing training resulted in a 29 percent reduced risk of dementia over 10 years, and that each additional training session was associated with a 10 percent lower dementia risk. "When we examined the dose-response," notes lead study author Jerri Edwards, Ph.D., of the University of South Florida in Tampa, "we found that those who trained more received more protective benefit."

The team says: "We have shown that a specific form of cognitive training, speed-of-processing, reduced the risk of dementia in initially well-functioning older adults followed up to 10 years. This is the first report of an intervention significantly reducing dementia risk."

That being said, the researchers stress that further studies are needed to determine why speed-of-processing training is effective for cognitive functioning, while other forms of brain training are not. "Existing data," says Dr. Edwards, "indicate speed training is effective among older adults with and without mild cognitive impairment, but it is important to understand this is preventative to lower risk of dementia and is not a treatment for dementia."

Text: Honor Whiteman – 11/2017
With kind permission to publish from MNT
Text slightly abridged and modified