Cognitive training tools show benefit in improving cognition after exercise

Man plays game on iPad after a workout.

In 2031, nearly one in four Canadians will be aged 65 or older. As Canada’s population ages, it will be important to establish evidence-based, inexpensive, non-pharmaceutical interventions to slow the effects of aging on cognition and mobility. New research from Lisanne ten Brinke, a PhD candidate in Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose’s Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of British Columbia, provides new insight on computerized cognitive training (CCT) tools, and how they may benefit older adults’ cognition when used alone and in combination with a brief bout of moderate-intensity exercise.

Published recently in the journal of The Gerontological Society of America, the study provides novel insight as to how older adults can maximize the benefits of CCT for their cognitive function. Study participants ranged from 65 to 85 years of age and some showed mild cognitive impairment. The 124 people in the study were divided into three groups. The first group performed CCT activities alone. The second group engaged in a brisk 15-minute walk outdoors immediately followed by CCT activities. The third group performed balance and toning exercises, sham cognitive training, and educational activities.

All participants who received the CCT program for eight weeks showed improvement in executive functions—cognitive abilities related to planning, decision making, and selective attention. However, those who went for a brisk walk prior to CCT enjoyed broader and greater cognitive benefits.

“There is good evidence to show that exercise, even a single session, benefits the brain and cognitive performance. Thus, we designed our study with the premise that a short bout of exercise would prime the brain to reap the benefits of CCT,” said Ten Brinke. 

The Liu-Ambrose lab recently showed that exercise has benefits for almost everyone regardless of age or fitness level; this new study provides support for the possibility that, in addition to exercise, there are other things adults can do to keep their brains sharp as they age.

“In the past decade, there have been a number of commercially available products designed to improve cognition or train the brain,” said Ten Brinke. “While the evidence for their benefits is promising, a lot more research is needed to understand both their efficacy and their underlying neural mechanisms. For now, though, they offer some value in potentially engaging older adults in cognitive challenges.”

Exercise, however, still seems to be key lifestyle factor in promoting cognitive health. The benefits of the walking group plus CCT weren’t limited to cognition alone; Ten Brinke found the group began to enjoy each other’s company over time; some study participants have gone on to form friendships and have started participating in other research studies.

“There is a clearly a social benefit to group participation in physical activities, and we are pleased to see that this demographic finds value in participating in research studies like these,” said Ten Brinke.