Computer Tablet Training Ups Processing Speed in Older Adults

Pam Harrison

December 13, 2016

Engaging in new, mentally challenging activities, such as learning how to use a computerized tablet, improves processing speed in adults, new research suggests.

Results of a prospective randomized controlled trial showed that training in the use of a tablet computer was associated with improvements in processing speed in healthy older adults compared to their counterparts in a control group.

"In terms of how our thinking skills change as we age, processing speed is often described as the most age-sensitive ― that is, it is likely to decline earlier [than other skills] ― and researchers have suggested that declines in processing speed might be what determines later changes in other cognitive domains," study investigator Alan Gow, PhD, associate professor in psychology, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland, told Medscape Medical News.

"If that's correct, then if we are able to slow decline or even improve processing speed, might that prove beneficial to other thinking skills? That's certainly one suggestion, though we'll need longer studies than the current one to explore that more definitively," he said.

The study was published online December 5 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Use It or Lose It

Engaging in cognitively demanding tasks has been associated with the maintenance of cognitive abilities, reinforcing the "use it or lose it" principle, the investigators note. To date, most studies that have focused on improving or preserving cognition have centered on cognitive training.

"This is where an individual is engaged in a focused, repetitive task usually targeted at improving a specific cognitive ability," Dr Gow explained.

In the Tablet for Healthy Ageing study, participants were encouraged to enjoy novel learning experiences and to acquire new skills that in theory could also enhance a number of other cognitive abilities.

The study included 43 healthy, community-dwelling adults, 22 of whom were assigned to the tablet intervention group and 21 to the control group.

Most participants had no previous tablet experience. The majority of the group had used a computer before, primarily to check emails and to search the Internet.

Participants allocated to learn how to use a tablet were continuously challenged through a series of structured lessons and assignments in a 2-hour classroom setting once a week for 10 weeks.

They also had to complete homework assignments and were asked to use the tablets at home as much as they could. On average, the tablet group spent almost 1.3 hours a day using their tablet. This included time spent doing class work, homework, and engaging in personal use.

More Research Needed

From pretest to posttest, "the tablet intervention group showed a significant improvement in processing speed performance over time (P = .002) whereas there was no significant difference in performance for the control group," the investigators report.

However, they note that the effect the tablet intervention had on processing speed was small. In addition, some participants in the control group also made some gains in processing speed, although those gains were smaller than those made in the active intervention group.

"But with longer studies or designs where we manipulate the intensity with which people are asked to engage in the new learning activity, it will be interesting to explore how different cognitive domains might be affected and whether changes in one domain drive later changes in others," he added.

The authors note that it is important that these and other findings be replicated, but one finding that appears to be consistent is that "novel, engaging activities might offer benefits for cognitive function."

Dr Gow also noted that his team is currently working on a larger study involving a broader range of activities. This will allow a more direct comparison of how benefits differ with respect to the intellectual, social, or physical demands of the new activity being pursued.

The study was supported by the Dunhill Medical Trust. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. Published online December 5, 2016. Abstract


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