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Health Team

Training Hones Older Folks' Memory Skills

Posted December 19, 2006 6:37 p.m. EST

— As you get older, it may be harder to remember things. For example, it's easier to forget phone numbers or, more important, when to take medications.

Researchers have been looking at how a process called cognitive training can help older people train their brains to hang onto information better.

Those who received cognitive training, which was done in 10 sessions of 60 to 75 minutes each over the course of six weeks, performed significantly higher than those who got no training. The researchers’ findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that the benefit held up for five years after the training.

“We focused on three abilities: memory, reasoning and speed of processing,” said Sherry L. Willis, a psychologist and a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.

The experiment studied 2,802 people age 65 and older who lived independently and did not have dementia. They were split into four groups. Three received cognitive training in one of the mental-skill areas. One group got no training.

Part of the training involved playing “brain games” to strengthen memory. One game offered a strategy for remembering lists of things. Another part of the training focused on finding patterns of letters or numbers and figuring out what would come next.

“Older adults really can continue to exercise mentally and to improve their cognitive abilities, but it does take work. It's just like physical exercise. You have to do it consistently and diligently,” Willis said.

Strong mental abilities mean people can take better care of themselves, like properly taking medication.

One of the people who received cognitive training was 81-year-old Pauline Lopez. She said she used to have problems remembering phone numbers, but the training helped her.

“I do remember phone numbers much more readily now,” Lopez said. "I don't know what's happened, but I see them one time and I remember them. And I remember directions better."

Her training was seven years ago, but she said it still works for her.

Willis said the best way to keep exercising your mind is to find activities you like—like crossword puzzles—and to challenge yourself by increasing the difficulty.