Finding the Best Way to Train Older Brains
3 Sep, 2007 01:30 pm
Memory training programs are becoming popular, but do they work for everyone? The bad news is that the older we get, the less likely we are to show improvements from training. Researchers at the University of Michigan are working to understand why this happens, and to try to change things so that these training programs can be more helpful to older adults.
Researchers at the University of Michigan are working to understand how memory training programs work, and what can be done to improve them. Dr. Cindy Lustig and her student David Bissig started with a memory program that other researchers had developed to improve the memory of older adults. This program even helps older people with mild cognitive impairments that often indicate the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. However, like most memory programs, not everyone benefited equally.
In particular, most memory programs work the best for seniors at the younger end of the age spectrum, whereas those in their 80s and up show smaller benefits. In their study, Bissig and Lustig asked why that might be the case.
What they found was that everyone spent approximately the same amount of time overall in the training program, but differed in how they spent their time. Younger seniors – those in their 60s and early 70s – spent most of their time learning the material. They used this time to help them organize the material they were trying to remember and connect it to things that they already knew. When they came to the test, they completed the questions very quickly and efficiently. People who spent their time in this way benefited the most from training. Many of them ended up improving their performance until they performed as well as young adults!
People of more advanced ages used a different, less successful strategy. They spent very little time learning the material, and spent most of their time struggling with the test questions. This turned out to be an ineffective strategy, and those who used it showed very little improvement even after 28 training sessions.
So, is it hopeless for the over-80 crowd? Not necessarily. Dr. Lustig’s lab is now working to teach people in those upper age ranges the strategies that were used by their more successful peers. They’re also trying to help people move the benefits of training out into their everyday lives – improving their memory for grocery lists and remembering people’s names. Although more research is needed to make them work well for everyone, training programs show a great deal of promise for boosting the memories of older adults.
Bissig, D., & Lustig, C. (2007). Who benefits from memory training? Psychological Science, 18, 720-726.