A new study has found that older people with fewer than 12 years of school benefit more from cognitive training than their more highly educated counterparts.
Researchers at Indiana University found that while the effects of reasoning and memory training did not differ by educational level, the effect of speed of information processing training differed significantly.
Cognitively normal older adults with less than a complete high school education experienced a 50 percent greater effect from speed of information processing training than college graduates, according to the new study, which was published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
Furthermore, the study found that the advantage gained from speed of information processing training was maintained for three years after the end of the training.
The study involved 10 training sessions over six weeks on auditory and visual tasks, conveyed through specially designed computerized exercises. These exercises taught individuals to process information more quickly, and make connections in the world around them, the researchers explained. Driving, for example, typically improves in those who have had speed of information processing training.
“Individuals who have had less education may have less cognitive reserve to overcome pathologies in the brain and may exhibit functional limitations earlier in the pathological process,” said Daniel O. Clark, Ph.D., the social epidemiologist who led the new study. “Those starting out at lower education levels had more room for improvement.”
According to Clark, there is evidence that suggests up to one-half of Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide may be attributed to potentially modifiable risk factors, including low educational attainment. Other risk factors include depression, physical inactivity, and smoking.
“Although not achieving early life education beyond secondary school creates a risk for earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, it may not be associated with a faster rate of cognitive decline,” Clark said.
Data for the study was obtained from approximately 2,800 cognitively normal individuals 65 and older of all education levels who participated in the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, which explored whether cognitive training in memory, reasoning, and speed of information processing affected cognitively based measures of daily functioning.
The ACTIVE study found that reasoning and information processing speed training, but not memory training, resulted in improved targeted cognitive abilities for 10 years, according to the researchers.
“If you practice some cognitive skills, you certainly will improve on those skills you are practicing,” Clark said. “The question remains open, however, as to how much will those practiced and improved skills transfer to daily cognitive function. And the big question is whether they will delay the onset of dementia.”
Clark added he hopes to conduct a future study of older adults with little education randomized to cognitive training or no training to confirm that speed of processing training is as effective as it appears to be for those with less than a high school diploma.