Even without dementia, certain brain functions are known to decline with age, and ways to combat this are constantly being researched. One recent finding in this area suggests that cognitive training can be used to improve executive brain functions (planning, time awareness, problem solving, etc.) while aerobic activity helps bolster memory function. Improvements were also observed in cerebral blood flow.
The study made use of 55 participants who were assigned to the cognitive training, aerobic training, or control groups. The cognitive training group received the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program, which focuses on building strategic attention, integrative reasoning, and innovation and problem solving. The aerobic group conducted three 60-minute workout sessions each week which involved a warm-up followed by either walking on a treadmill or cycling a stationary bike. At the beginning, middle, and end points of the 12-week study period, participants had their brains scanned with an MRI and were given tests in various areas of thinking.
The cognitive training group not only showed better executive function and strategic thinking, but these participants also had a 7.9% increased rate in blood flow through the brain, which the researchers attributed to the SMART program and mental exercises. The aerobic group did not show this type of change but did score higher on memory function tests.
Although the study is small and has limited controls, the results do have some promise and help support prior findings about physical and mental exercise helping brain function. Declines in memory and executive function are not the exclusive area of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Anyone who grows old has a vested interest in finding ways to keep themselves sharp. This research helps highlight the importance of both mental exercise and physical training to promote brain health and provides a stepping stone that can be built on as more work is done to devise the ideal methods for bolstering the mind.
Chapman, S., et. al., “Distinct Brain and Behavioral Benefits from Cognitive vs. Physical Training: A Randomized Trial in Aging Adults,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2016; http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00338.