Improving Brain Functioning For Healthy Aging: Interview with scientist Jerri Edwards

Feb 10 17:55 2008 Alvaro Fernandez Print This Article

Have you been reading all about Brain Training? Today we are fortunate to interview Dr. Jerri Edwards, an Associate Professor at University of South Florida's School of Aging Studies and Co-Investigator of the influencial ACTIVE study. Dr. Edwards' research is aimed toward discovering how cognitive abilities can be maintained and even enhanced with advancing age.

Copyright (c) 2008 SharpBrains

Today we are fortunate to interview Dr. Jerri Edwards,Guest Posting an Associate Professor at University of South Florida's School of Aging Studies and Co-Investigator of the influencial ACTIVE study. Dr. Edwards was trained by Dr. Karlene K. Ball, and her research is aimed toward discovering how cognitive abilities can be maintained and even enhanced with advancing age.

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Please explain to our readers your main research areas.

Jerri Edwards (JE): I am particularly interested in how cognitive interventions may help older adults to avoid or at least delay functional difficulties and thereby maintain their independence longer. Much of my work has focused on the functional ability of driving including assessing driving fitness among older adults and remediation of cognitive decline that results in driving difficulties.

Some research questions that interest me include, how can we maintain healthier lives longer? How can training improve cognitive abilities, both to improve those abilities and also to slow-down, or delay, cognitive decline? The specific cognitive ability that I have studied the most is processing speed, which is one of the cognitive skills that decline early on as we age.

AF: Can you explain what cognitive processing speed is, and why it is relevant to our daily lives?

JE: Processing speed is mental quickness. Just like a computer with a 486 processor can do a lot of the same things as a computer with a Pentium 4 processor, but it takes much longer, our minds tend to slow down with age as compared to when we were younger. We can do the same tasks, but it takes more time. Quick speed of processing is important for quick decision making in our daily lives. When you are driving, if something unexpected happens, how quickly can you notice the situation and decide how to react?

AF: Please describe how the ACTIVE trial used the cognitive training program, and what the results were found to be when they were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 2006?

JE: I was a co-investigator of the ACTIVE study, a multi-site, controlled study, with thousands of adults over sixty-five, to evaluate the effectiveness of three different cognitive training methods with three different groups:

- The first group used a memory training program including a variety of traditional memory techniques such as mnemonics and the method of loci.

- The second group was trained in learn inductive reasoning skills.

- The third group was exposed to computer-based programs to train processing speed.

All 3 groups spent the same amount of time in their respective training programs, around 2 hours a week for 5 weeks, going through exercises of increasing difficulty. The ACTIVE study was designed to track participants' performance over a number of years, so, after this initial 5-week intervention, some groups received training booster sessions, after 1 year and again after 3 years.

Willis and colleagues published the 5-year results in JAMA last December and the results were very positive. All 3 types of cognitive programs were shown to have an effect immediately after the program, after 3 years, and after 5. But, the results of the group that used a computer-based program to train processing speed showed clear short-term and long-term results. Individuals who experienced improved speed of processing also showed better performance on tasks of instrumental activities of daily living such as quickly finding an item on a crowded pantry shelf and reading medication bottles. They also reacted to road signs more quickly. We found this transfer of training in our prior studies using the training protocol as well.

In short, significant percentages of the participants improved their memory, reasoning and information-processing speed across all three methods. The most impressive result was that, when tested five years later, the participants in the computer-based program had less of a decline in the skill they were trained in than did a control group that received no cognitive training.

AF: The results of the ACTIVE study were quite impressive and contributed in large part to the amount of media coverage about brain fitness last year. However, as you have probably seen, there is a good deal of confusion about brain fitness among the media and the public at large. Can you help our readers understand two common questions: 1) Why are new programs better than, say, doing crosswords puzzles?, and 2) Can one really say that these programs can reverse age-related decline?

To answer the first question, I would say that a crossword puzzle is not a form of cognitive training. It can be stimulating, but it is not a form of structured mental exercise that has been shown to improve specific cognitive skills - other than the skill of doing crossword puzzles, of course.

In terms of the second question, it is too early to say whether we can really reverse decline in a permanent way. There are many skills involved and the studies are not long enough to really compare different trajectories. What we can say is that by doing some exercises, one can improve cognitive speed of processing by 146-250%, and that a significant portion of that improvement stays even after 5 years. We cannot say more definitively.

But I think it is noteworthy to be able to say that, in all of the programs tested, the payoff from cognitive training, or what we can call "mental exercise", seemed far greater than we are accustomed to getting from physical exercise. Just imagine if you could say that 10 hours of workouts at the gym every day this month was enough to help keep you fit five years from now.

AF: Research like this seems to present major opportunities for society. For example, wouldn't insurance companies, or the AARP, want to sponsor more research and evaluate whether to offer this type of training to their members? Won't major employers see opportunities to improve the performance of older employees by identifying the cognitive skills that may need the most improvement and offering tailored training? We could speculate that a person with faster processing abilities will also be able to make faster decisions and learn faster...

JE: That makes sense, based on what we know. Cognitive abilities evolve in different ways as we age, and some typically start to decline in our thirties. Cognitive interventions may help train and improve those abilities, and there is already research that strongly indicates where and how training can be useful. More research is still required to deliver more precise and tailored interventions in a variety of environments. I suspect we will see the field grow significantly - and not just for aging-related priorities. Cognitive training may become useful for a variety of health conditions, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients, for example. More research will help researchers refine assessments and training programs.

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About Article Author

Alvaro Fernandez
Alvaro Fernandez

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-Founder of SharpBrains.com, which provides the latest science-based information for Brain Fitness combined with fun brain teasers. SharpBrains has been recognized by Scientific American Mind, Newsweek, Forbes. Alvaro holds MA in Education and MBA from Stanford University, and teaches The Science of Brain Health at UC-Berkeley Lifelong Learning Institute. You can learn more at http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog

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