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Study Shows Mental Exercises Slow Memory Loss

December 20, 2006 at 11:31 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now, maintaining your mental muscle. A study out in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association finds that there may be such a thing as a workout for your brain.

The study showed mental exercises could help seniors’ slow some of the memory decline that comes with aging. Our health correspondent, Susan Dentzer, is here with the details.

OK, Susan, we’ve all been through this. We can’t find the keys. We don’t remember the name of the person we just met. Do these studies show us that there’s a way to counteract some of that?

SUSAN DENTZER, NewsHour Health Correspondent: Yes, indeed, Gwen. They offer at least some evidence that you can halt that normal decline.

Most people feel that they get — as they get into their 60s, 70s, 80s, that they get rusty in their thinking skills. Part of it is memory. It’s also reasoning. If you have a bottle of pills that says, “Take every other day,” can you figure out which days to take them on?

How quickly can you process information? If you’re driving and you see a sign that says, “Detour,” how quickly can you integrate that into what you need to do next? All of us will get rusty as our age increases, so the question is: Can you do something behaviorally that counteracts that? And the study does indeed offer evidence that you can.

The study

GWEN IFILL: Well, tell us what they did exactly, how they proved that there is actually some cause and effect.

SUSAN DENTZER: What they did was they went out and they recruited 2,800 volunteers in various communities around the U.S., six communities, Baltimore, Indianapolis, and so on.

Half of them were put into a group where they got nothing. They were the control group.

The other half were split into three groups, where they got specific, intensive training over a short period of time in memory skills, you know, how to remember things when you go to the grocery store, remember what you came to buy, how to quickly absorb information on a computer screen, et cetera.

They got up to 10 sessions of training over five to six weeks. And what the results showed was that, immediately upon getting that training, people improved. One out of four people improved in memory. Lots of people, 87 percent, improved in the sort of speed of processing when they got that specific training.

And what was really interesting is that, over a five-year period, people retained those improvements. So it's almost as if you got on a treadmill and you worked out once, but five year later you still got the benefit of that. So that was a surprising finding.


But let's talk about the crossword puzzle effect, I call it, because it seems to me -- we've read before that, if you do crossword puzzles or Sudoku -- whatever that game is -- that you will sharpen your thinking and that that will allow you to be sharper. Is this more than that?

SUSAN DENTZER: It's a little bit more than that, in the sense that these were specific, targeted interventions, in effect. You really got this intensive training.

For example, on the memory skills, you got trained that, if you want to go to the grocery store, remember what you came there to do, one way to do that is to organize things into groups. Think of, "What do I need in the produce aisle? What I do need in the meat aisle?"

You know, you package things into groups, you can remember them better. "Oh, yes, I need the hamburger, et cetera." Those kinds of specifics, kind of skills-based training is what people got, so it was a little bit more proactive than just playing around with crossword puzzles.

Preventing Alzheimer's disease

GWEN IFILL: Well, the great fear that people have when they have these senior moments is that this is a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. Is there anything in this study which gives anybody any ease about that fear?

SUSAN DENTZER: This says nothing about Alzheimer's or actual disease processes. In fact, quite the opposite, we think that biologically those are diseases that this kind of thing cannot counteract.

But sort of the normal aging brain phenomena that does seem to result in these declines in cognitive function and thinking, there's possibly something there.

Now, what also was not in the study is that it didn't translate over into how people can function generally, in the kinds of things people need to do as they age. In other words, they assessed people for their performance in how well do people shop? Can they keep track of their finances, balance their checkbooks?

And when they assess people according to those measures, there's no real benefit here. That's, of course, what you really want. You know, people responded well on tests, but you want them to be able to perform well in society, perform well enough to live alone, stay out of nursing homes, and there's no evidence from this particular study that that could go that far.

GWEN IFILL: This study was taken of people of Medicare-eligible age and older. Is there any way to apply it to people who are younger?

SUSAN DENTZER: Again, nothing in this study that says that. As you point out, the average age of people in this study was 74. But there's no reason to believe that we couldn't all take some steps.

And what people say is really what this calls for is much more research to understand what happens to the brain, in the brain as we age, and what kinds of strategies we could use to offset those effects.

Availability of self test products

GWEN IFILL: What this is not is a study of brain?

SUSAN DENTZER: It's not a brain study. It's really a study of cognition and whether you can deal with that on a behavioral basis as opposed to, say, popping a pill or doing something internally in your brain.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that now, when people line up tomorrow after watching this program tonight and go to their doctors and say, "I want to do what they did in that study," that a doctor can prescribe?

SUSAN DENTZER: Not specifically this, but there are lots of commercial products increasingly on the market that advertise themselves as being brain aides or cognition aides for people as they age. And there will be more of these. The researchers involved in the study predict that, on the basis of the study, there will be many more commercial products available like this. None of those, we should say...

GWEN IFILL: Including toys and electronic gadgets?

SUSAN DENTZER: Yes, exactly, none of which, of course, have been subjected to anywhere near the degree of rigorous clinical analysis that has gone on in this study, but that will be clearly a booming market, particularly as the baby boomers age.

GWEN IFILL: So, bottom line, an interesting survey, but not necessarily a conclusive one?

SUSAN DENTZER: Interesting and certainly grounds for much more research. There's a "there" there.

And what people say is -- we already know, for example, that just by exercising you can improve your cognitive function, that physical exercises improves that. OK, so what if you also did the mental equivalent of that? And if you did the mental equivalent of cross training, the way athletes do, the equivalent, do actual cross-training, could you get a broad effect?

What researchers say is now what we have to do is study that. If you suggested people to a lot of cognitive training, memory and these other areas, could you really halt these declines in aging? And there may be some reason to do that.

GWEN IFILL: All right, Susan, what's your last name again?

Susan Dentzer.

SUSAN DENTZER: I know you.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you very much.

SUSAN DENTZER: Thanks, Gwen.