Can technology keep your brain running at top speed?

Keeping our brains healthy and up to speed is certainly something on everyone’s mind — no pun intended. No one likes feeling like their brain is a little slower on the uptake with each passing year. It’s frustrating when mental tasks take more effort than they used to, or it takes you just a little bit longer to come up with a witty reply in conversation. And it’s especially daunting to try to keep up with new technology.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to reach a point where they feel like technology is outpacing them at such a high speed that there’s no hope in catching up. But a new study suggests that challenging your brain with new technology has big payoffs if you want to keep operating at full cognitive speed into your 70s, 80s, and beyond.

This is something I’ve been encouraging for years, so it’s nice to see the research backing me up. I tell all my patients that’s important to embrace technology and use it for all that it can give you. In fact, I have been known to take time during office visits to teach my patients how to use their smart phones, helping them download and learn how to use memory-improving apps.

But it’s not just smart phones that can help keep your memory sharp. Modern technology offers so many ways to keep your brains healthy. And the best part is, this resource is literally at your fingertips.

I personally am a big fan of technology. I love to learn new tricks with my computer, tablet, and phone. In my daily life, I’m almost constantly making use of some sort of technology. But unlike younger people, who are practically born with a computer attached to them, I have to put some effort into learning all the new innovations as they come along.

But you know what? It’s worth it. Because technology isn’t just fun and useful. It also helps me stay current and use my mind in different ways. My gut instinct has always been that it keeps me sharp. And this new study is giving that hunch some weight.

In this prospective randomized controlled trial, researchers looked at brain processing speeds in two groups of healthy older adults. The first group received training in how to use a tablet computer. The second did not. In the training, participants were really encouraged to push past their perceived limits in technology use. Most of the participants had used computers, but only to check email or surf the Web. So the structured lessons and assignments they received as part of the study — two-hour weekly sessions for 10 weeks, plus homework assignments — definitely stretched them.

Was it worth it? The results speak for themselves…

The adults in the intervention group had a significant improvement in processing speed over the 10 weeks. Those in the control group did not.

Processing speed — the speed with which the brain processes information — is known to decline steadily starting in middle age. In fact, it’s the most age-sensitive of our thinking skills. And decline in processing speed has far-reaching effects.

Research suggests that the downward trend in processing speed might be what determines whether we decline in other cognitive areas as we age.

That leads to the question: Can preserving processing speed lead to overall improvement in cognitive function? It’s too soon to tell, but if spending a little time challenging yourself (and having fun) with new technology might help, I say it’s worth a shot.

It all comes back to the same old adage: Use it or lose it. Continuing to challenge your brain to do new things as you age maintains your cognitive abilities. Plain and simple.

So here’s your action item for today: Grab your phone or tablet, or sit down at your computer, and try something new. Download a new app. Visit an interactive website. It may feel like a big hurdle at first, but I promise you’ll find something that interests you if you stick with it.

Don’t shy away from a valuable tool in the brain-health arsenal — especially one that can keep you young in one of the most important ways…by helping you think.