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Study Shows, with Help, We Can Stay Sharp in Old Age

It is not news that Americans over 65 represent one of the fastest growing segments of the population. And, a popular notion is that age dulls the senses, making it difficult for seniors to perform activities that are mainstays of independent living.

A study, published in the November 13, 2002, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association offers encouraging news. The study reveals that mental abilities, crucial to independent living for seniors can be improved with intervention. One of the authors is John Morris, Ph.D., Co-director of the Research & Training Institute of Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Aged in Boston.

According to Dr. Morris, “The results are very exciting. What’s important now are the broader implications these maintained abilities will have for helping elders as they age and begin to experience losses of functional ability.”

The nation’s largest study of its kind, The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial shows promise that, with help, seniors can maintain or improve skills in three critical aspects of cognitive ability; memory, reasoning and speed of information processing. These functions impact an individual’s ability to perform such essential daily tasks as telephone use, food preparation, medication use, driving, and handling personal finances. 

ACTIVE, a multi-site,* single-blind clinical trial, tested the effectiveness and durability of three techniques to improve the ability of older people to think and reason. The two-hour training sessions lasted for five weeks and improved the memory, concentration and problem solving skills of healthy independent adults 65 years old and older who participated in the study. The training not only improved participants' cognitive abilities, but the improvement persisted for two years after the training.

The next step will be to build on the study’s results to see how training that works in the laboratory translates to “real-world” settings.

Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Aged Research and Training Institute is the largest provider-based gerontological research facility in the country. For close to 40 years researchers at the Institute have led the way in the study of problems that affect older people in an effort to find ways to maximize their quality of life. The Institute’s world-renowned studies focus on conditions like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and dementias like Alzheimer’s disease that are still poorly understood by the medical community.

ACTIVE was funded by the NIA and the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), two components of the National Institutes of Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

*ACTIVE investigators included Karlene Ball, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Alabama at Birmingham and Daniel B. Berch, Ph.D., National Institute on Aging, Karin F. Helmers, Ph.D., National Institute of Nursing Research; Jared B. Jobe, Ph.D., National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; Mary D. Leveck, Ph.D., National Institute of Nursing Research; Michael Marsiske, Ph.D., Institute on Aging and Departments of Health Policy and Epidemiology and Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Florida; John N. Morris, Ph.D.,  Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged; George W. Rebok, Ph.D., Department of Mental Hygiene Johns Hopkins University; David M. Smith M.D., Department of Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine;  Sharon L. Tennstedt, Ph.D., New England Research Institutes; Frederick W. Unverzagt, Ph.D. Department of Psychiatry, Indiana University School of Medicine; Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Pennsylvania State University; the ACTIVE Study Group.