Not as sharp as you used to be? Exercises for your brain might help keep it fit

The Bottom Line

  • Various aspects of cognitive function can change with age, and sometimes for the worse. 
  • Older adults can use cognitive-based training – such as video games, learning therapy, or computerized training – to improve their cognitive function. 
  • Training is more effective for executive function if performed at least three times a week for 24 or more sessions, and for at least eight weeks for attention. 

With aging comes the feeling that our brains are not what they used to be. We may lose our car keys more often, leave pasta to boil over on the stove, or forget the name of a person we just met. These brain hiccups can leave us wondering if there are things we can do to stay sharp. It turns out that healthy aging doesn’t just mean moving your body. Exercising your brain is important, too!

How well our brain functions changes with age. As we get older, some functions start to decline – such as memory or the speed at which we process information (1).

Cognitive function can be divided into four main categories – each category serving a different purpose.

  1. Memory allows us to understand, learn, store, and remember information. Alzheimer’s disease heavily affects this part of cognitive function (2). Memory loss in an otherwise healthy individual may be an early sign of dementia (3).
  2. Attention allows us to focus on one specific thing and process information about it quickly (4). This process slows down as we age (5).
  3. Executive function allows us to organize our thoughts and act on them. It let's us set goals for the present and future, and to plan, organize, make choices, and solve problems (6).
  4. Visual-spatial ability allows us to understand objects in three-dimensional space (7).

Any of these areas can be affected as we grow older, but there are exercises for the brain (e.g. cognitive-based training) that may help delay this age-related brain drain (8).


What the research tells us

Cognitive-based training aims to maintain cognitive function in older adults, rather than teaching new skills. It can include many different types of activities, such as video games, physical activity, computerized training, learning therapy, visual or auditory tasks, and interactive television-based training.

A recent meta-analysis found cognitive-based training led to improved overall cognitive function and executive function among healthy older adults. Small gains were also observed in memory, attention, and visual-spatial ability. The training sessions lasted 20 to180 minutes and were carried out one to five days a week for two to 24 weeks. The greatest benefit to executive function occurred when cognitive-based training was done three or more times per week for 24 sessions or more, while training for eight weeks or more resulted in improvement to attention (8).

If you’re worried about staying sharp as you age, don’t forget your brain needs “push-ups” too. Cognitive-based training may be just what you need to keep your brain in shape.


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References

  1. Harada CN, Natelson Love MC, et al. Normal cognitive aging. Clin Geriatr Med. 2013; 29(4):737-752. doi: 10.1016/j.cger.2013.07.002.  
  2. Baddeley A. Working memory. Science. 1992; 255(5044):556-559. 
  3. Luck T, Luppa M, Matschinger H, et al. Incident subjective memory complaints and the risk of subsequent dementia. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 2014; 131(4):290-296.  doi: 10.1111/acps.12328. 
  4. Kueider AM, Parisi JM, Gross AL, et al. Computerized cognitive training with older adults: A systematic review. PLoS One. 2012; 7(7):e40588. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040588.
  5. Salthous TA. The processing-speed theory of adult age differences in cognition. Psychol Rev. 1996; 103(3):403-428. 
  6. Alvarez JA, Emory E. Executive function and the frontal lobes: A meta-analytic review. Neuropsychol Rev. 2006; 16(1):17-42. doi: 10.1007/s11065-006-9002-x.  
  7. Salthouse TA, Mitchell DR. Effects of age and naturally occurring experience on spatial visualization performance. Dev Psychol. 1990; 26(5):845-854. 
  8. Chiu H, Chu H, Tsai J, et al. The effect of cognitive-based training for the healthy older people: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS One. 2017; 12(5):e0176742. doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176742.
 

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.