Can online brain training improve mental processing in the over 50s?

News Story

Training delivered online can boost the mental processing of the over 50s, a Swinburne University study has found.

Professor Con Stough’s team at Swinburne University of Technology asked 34 Australians aged between 53 and 75 to complete 21 days of training using a popular online program.

They found a 10 per cent improvement in mental processing speeds for two of the tasks tested.

Stough said this improvement was a good start but further studies were needed.

He said “crystallised intelligence”, or stored knowledge, does not begin to decline until after 60, whereas “fluid intelligence”, or speed of learning, decreases after the age of 21.

Stough said the online training would help fluid intelligence.

“There is a theory that links them together. It says that if you improve brain speed and the ability to learn, then people should be able to make new connections and to make new memories and this should also help crystallised intelligence down the track.”

He said improving mental processing was important for three reasons: the lack of skilled workers, the ability of individuals to earn money for longer and the improved quality of life.

Stough said the reaction time of a 20 to 30-year old was around 700 milliseconds compared with 1200 milliseconds in a 70 or 80-year old.

“All of us get slower as we get older.”

He said scientists do not know why our brains slow but there were two theories.

The first was the general shrinking of the brain and the loss of chemical transmitters and the ability to be protected from chemical stress.

The second was the “use it or lose it theory”, where brain cells were “pruned” if they were not needed.

Scientists do not know which type of training is better at improving mental speed, but Stough’s view is that it would be better if people train in tasks that they are not good at.

“For people who do crosswords everyday, I don’t think there’s much point training them in vocabulary; maybe they want to do Sudoku or something different,” he said. “You really want the brain to make new connections.”

Stough’s research appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Gerontology in July 2012.

Stough is planning a follow-up study this year. His team will look at whether online training will transfer to other behaviours, such as driving, and why training benefits some people more than others.

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