'Brain Fitness' Program Improves Memory

Deborah Brauser

September 01, 2011

September 1, 2011 — A combination of brain exercises and healthy lifestyle changes can improve memory performance in healthy elderly adults, new research suggests.

In a sample study of 115 participants from 2 live-in retirement communities, those who underwent a new educational program (that included memory training, physical activity, stress reduction, and better diet) showed significant improvements on a variety of measures after just 6 weeks, including word recognition and recall.

"I was very pleased with these significant results in a sample that was not huge," senior study author Gary Small, MD, professor of aging at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) and director of the UCLA Longevity Center, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. Gary Small

He noted that the investigators wanted to test whether this intervention improved both objective and subjective memory performance.

"Subjective memory is a person's self-perception of how they're doing, and objective is how well they do on a pen-and-paper test. It was gratifying to see that this program seemed to be helping people in day-to-day memory challenges."

Lead author Karen Miller, PhD, associate clinical professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a release that "it was exciting" to see the subjects' participation, as well as their improvements in the memory fitness program.

"The study demonstrates that it's never too late to learn new skills to enhance one's life," added Dr. Miller.

The study was published online July 14 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Emphasizing a "Healthy Brain"

"Despite the effectiveness of memory training interventions in clinical trials, few community-based programs exist, and their effects have not been systematically tested," write the investigators.

The new memory training program, which was created by Dr. Small and Dr. Miller, uses a standardized curriculum consisting of brain exercises for association and visual imagery, education on a "healthy brain diet" and stress reduction, physical activity, and even assigned memory exercises to be performed at home.

The investigators have previously offered this program in a number of settings, including the UCLA campus and senior centers. However, this is the first time it was offered in a retirement living community, which made participation easier because "users did not have to drive to a class off-site," said Dr. Small.

"Our group tends to study memory training and healthy lifestyle techniques from the point of view of first developing a program that we think is user friendly and then testing it out. However, many times there's the approach where a scientific study is done first. So a program may be proven to be effective or not, but the question is: Will people use it? And will it be adaptable to a lot of communities?" he said.

For the study, 115 residents of 2 continuing-care communities in Maryland older than 62 years (mean age, 80.9 years; 79% women; 98% white) who had slight memory complaints but no diagnosis of dementia were enrolled and tested for memory performance.

After testing, participants were randomly assigned either to undergo the memory fitness program, consisting of 12 twice-weekly, hour-long sessions (15 - 20 per class), or to be placed on a waiting list for the program and considered study controls.

Objective cognitive measures during the pretesting phase, as well as at baseline and at study's end, assessed changes in immediate and in delayed verbal memory, retention of verbal information, memory recognition, and verbal fluency.

Subjective measures evaluated domains of memory self-awareness, including frequency and severity of forgetting, mnemonics use, and retrospective functioning.

Generalizeable Results?

Results showed that the patients who underwent the memory fitness program showed significant improvements postintervention on recognition memory for word pairs (P < .001) and retention of verbal list learning (P < .01).

In addition, their retrospective functioning scores increased (P < .0001), "indicating a belief in having a better memory," write the investigators.

"These findings indicate that a 6-week healthy lifestyle program can improve both encoding and recalling of new verbal information as well as self-perception of memory ability in older adults," they write, noting that it may be generalizable to a real-world setting.

"As a community-based educational intervention, the program has the potential to meet the community's need for an affordable and sustainable memory program over time."

John Parrish, PhD, executive director of the Erickson Foundation, which oversees the retirement communities used in this study, said in a release that the foundation is now offering the program in all 16 of their communities across the country.

"The study suggests that the memory fitness program may be a cost-effective means of addressing some memory-related concerns of healthy older adults," he said.

Dr. Small said that he hopes that clinicians will see from this study and others that mild, age-related memory complaints can improve with specific training.

"There are a lot of ways to learn memory techniques. I think physicians should first ask people about their memory concerns and then try to refer them to get some help," he said.

"It's important to empower people and teach them about healthy brain lifestyle. Although there's no absolute proof that you can prevent Alzheimer's disease, we know that physical exercise and healthy diet can prevent diabetes, which is itself a major risk factor for Alzheimer's. So it all seems to tie together."

The study was supported by the Fran and Ray Stark Foundation Fund for Alzheimer's Disease Research, the Judith Olenick Elgart Fund for Research on Brain Aging, and the Parlow-Solomon Professorship. Dr. Small reports having served as a consultant and/or having received lecture and stock options in Dakim, Inc. and is author of the forthcoming book, The Alzheimer's Prevention Program. Dr. Miller and one other study author report having received grant support from Dakim.

Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. Published online July 14, 2011. Abstract

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