How to “train” your brain to cut dementia risk in half

Not a day goes by that a patient doesn’t ask me how they can keep their brain sharp and active. If my clinical experience is any indication, this might be the single biggest priority among aging Americans.

And you know what? It should be. As technology continues to advance, doctors have gotten really good at keeping people alive. But it hardly matters, if we don’t have a way to keep their brains healthy, too.

That’s why I’m always looking for new answers to this urgent question — and why I was intrigued to come across a recent study that offers a fresh approach to the problem.

Turns out, part of the answer is exercise — but not just the physical kind.

For the past decade, researchers have been gathering data from six different sites across the United States as part of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study.

The goal of this study was to see how the implementation of three different cognitive “training” programs might affect dementia risk in healthy older adults. The ACTIVE researchers looked at more than 2,750 elderly subjects (all 65 plus, with an average age of 73 — none of whom started the study with any evidence of cognitive decline or dementia).

After baseline tests evaluating memory, reasoning ability, and processing speed, all the subjects received random “classroom” assignments. Different “classes” focused on different cognitive skills. These included:

  • Memory training, which taught strategies like using mnemonic devices to recall the details of and concepts behind word lists, sequences, texts, and stories.
  • Reasoning training, which centered on problem solving and pattern recognition. (Not just in letter or number series, but also in everyday situations, like medication or travel schedules).
  • “Speed-of-processing” training, which used computer programs designed to increase both speed and accuracy of information processing, in order to expand visual attention span and reduce the time it takes to make decisions.
  • And of course, there was also a control group that received no “brain training” at all.

Researchers evaluated the subjects for changes in cognition and function right after the sessions, and again during the first, second, third, fifth, and tenth year of follow-up.

Ultimately, only one type of “brain training” had a significant effect on cognitive function after 10 years.

Subjects who received speed-of-processing training were 33 percent less likely to face cognitive decline than controls. The risk of dementia dropped 8 percent with each completed session — and among subjects who finished 11 sessions or more, long-term dementia risk was cut nearly in half.

And those weren’t the only benefits of “speed training,” either. It helps with reaction times and safe driving (particularly as you age), and also delivers a daily functional performance boost, making everyday tasks and chores easier to do independently.

I’ve always been a big believer in “exercising” your brain. And with results like this, you can bet I’ll be recommending speed training strategies to my patients in the future. Especially since the same method used in the ACTIVE study is available to anyone who wants to try it.

It’s called Double Decision, and you’ll find it as part of the online cognitive training program BrainHQ.