Not all brain-training techniques are effective at reducing the risk of dementia but speed of processing training has gained scientific backing.
There is now a vast array of brain-training products on the market with many claiming to keep older minds active, thereby staving off dementia. But, the scientific evidence to back up these claims is contradictory and this has caused some concern. In 2014 a group of experts from the Stanford Center on Longevity said, "We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do."
However, the mistake may be in assuming that all brain-training is the same. To rectify this knowledge gap the University of Florida carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis of more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers that looked specifically at speed of processing training.
Dr Jerri Edwards who headed the research says, "Lumping all brain-training together is like trying to determine the effectiveness of antibiotics by looking at the universe of all pills, and including sugar pills and dietary supplements in that analysis. You'll find that some work and some do not. To then conclude that brain-training does not work - or is not yet proven - is based on flawed analysis."
Speed of processing training
According to Dr Edwards, speed of processing training improves the speed and accuracy of visual attention, in other words, someone's mental agility.
As an example, in one of the tasks, the user identifies a target object in the centre of the screen, a truck or car, for instance. The participant is then required to identify a second target in the periphery of their vision.
With practice, the time taken to identify the peripheral target gets shorter and shorter. Even when the task is made more difficult by adding distracting objects around the targets, people improve their performance over time.
Speed of processing training was found to improve a number of areas of cognitive performance including attention, behavioural (such as depressive symptoms and feelings of control), and functional performance in real-life situations.
The results of the ACTIVE study
Alongside the review and analysis, the researchers also presented results from their Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study.
The study was the first large-scale, randomised trial to test the long-term impact of brain-training on the prevention of cognitive impairment in an individual's daily life.
The study used 2,832 individuals, aged 65-94, and examined the long-term effects of brain-training on the prevention of dementia. The team found that the cohort's dementia risk was reduced by 48% over 10 years for those who completed 11 or more sessions of the brain-training technique.
Overall, the risk of dementia was reduced by 8 percent for each session of speed processing training.
Dr Edwards concludes: "Some brain-training does work, but not all of it. People should seek out training backed by multiple peer-reviewed studies. The meta-analysis of this particular speed of processing training shows it can improve how people function in their everyday lives."
The results of the study were presented at the American Psychological Association's 124th Annual Convention in Denver, Colarado.