Scientists who study the brain often refer to its “plasticity.” Plasticity is our brain’s ability to reshape neural connections . . . in other words, to continue to learn and adapt with ease. Although younger brains are more plastic than older ones, we have the capacity to continue to learn and challenge ourselves cognitively throughout our lives. And older brains have been shown to be more efficient in the way that they access and process information.


It seems that as we get older we are truly able to do “more with less.” The more we work our brains, the stronger they get. There are many cognitive techniques and lifestyle choices that empower our brains to do more, including mental exercise, curiosity and creativity, and ongoing engagement in social activity and support.


Brain Matters

Cognitive Training Can Help Support Reaction Times in Older Adults


One of the more troublesome concerns of aging is our ability to drive a car safely, which is intimately tied to our feelings of confidence. But many seniors struggle with “processing speed” or mental quickness. Just as a computer’s processing speed varies according to the strength of the processor inside it, so does our mental processing speed depend upon the strength of our mental hardware. As we get older, we can do the same tasks, but it takes a bit more time.


This can be particularly important when it comes to driving, as unexpected things happen frequently on the road and we must react quickly. You may have noticed that your responses are more delayed and you feel a bit more uncertain when you’re behind the wheel. At best this results in rather jerky, erratic driving. At worst it can cause an accident. But new research is showing that we can actually train our brains to react faster. A 2006 study reveals that the aging brain can be trained to increase reaction time and other cognitive skills. Called the ACTIVE trial, this controlled study with thousands of adults over the age of 65 was conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of three cognitive training techniques.


The first group used a cognitive-training program that employed traditional techniques like mnemonics. The second group was trained in inductive reasoning skills. And the third was exposed to computer-based programs to train processing speed. The results were that all three programs were shown to have a positive effect immediately after the program, and then again after three years and five. But the third group that used a computer-based program to train processing speed showed even more impressive short-term and long-term results.


Not only did this training help support processing speed, but it also performance on tasks of daily living, such as reading labels or finding an item quickly on a crowded shelf. And, after their training, study participants demonstrated a quicker reaction time to road signs. The speed-of-processing intervention helped participants to not only improve “useful field of view,” the skill that was directly trained, but it also transferred into real-life driving, and the results were sustained after 18 months, as tested by a real 14-mile open road evaluation.


Faster speed-of-processing seemed to enable adults to react better to unexpected events that require a fast response and to reduce by 40% the number of dangerous maneuvers on real roads (defined as those that required the training instructor to intervene during the evaluation).