A number of studies have found evidence that older adults can benefit from cognitive training. However, neural plasticity is thought to decline with age, and because of this, it’s thought that the younger-old, and/or the higher-functioning, may benefit more than the older-old, or the lower-functioning. On the other hand, because their performance may already be as good as it can be, higher-functioning seniors may be less likely to benefit. You can find evidence for both of these views.
In a new study, 19 of 39 older adults (aged 60-77) were given training in a multiplayer online video game called World of Warcraft (the other 20 formed a control group). This game was chosen because it involves multitasking and switching between various cognitive abilities. It was theorized that the demands of the game would improve both spatial orientation and attentional control, and that the multiple tasks might produce more improvement in those with lower initial ability compared to those with higher ability.
WoW participants were given a 2-hour training session, involving a 1-hour lecture and demonstration, and one hour of practice. They were then expected to play the game at home for around 14 hours over the next two weeks. There was no intervention for the control group. All participants were given several cognitive tests at the beginning and end of the two week period: Mental Rotation Test; Stroop Test; Object Perspective Test; Progressive Matrices; Shipley Vocabulary Test; Everyday Cognition Battery; Digit Symbol Substitution Test.
As a group, the WoW group improved significantly more on the Stroop test (a measure of attentional control) compared to the control group. There was no change in the other tests. However, those in the WoW group who had performed more poorly on the Object Perspective Test (measuring spatial orientation) improved significantly. Similarly, on the Mental Rotation Test, ECB, and Progressive Matrices, those who performed more poorly at the beginning tended to improve after two weeks of training. There was no change on the Digit Symbol test.
The finding that only those whose performance was initially poor benefited from cognitive training is consistent with other studies suggesting that training only benefits those who are operating below par. This is not really surprising, but there are a few points that should be made.
First of all, it should be noted that this was a group of relatively high-functioning young-old adults — poorer performance in this case could be (relatively) better performance in another context. What it comes down to is whether you are operating at a level below which you are capable of — and this applies broadly, for example, experiments show that spatial training benefits females but not males (because males tend to already have practiced enough).
Given that, in expertise research, training has an on-going, apparently limitless, effect on performance, it seems likely that the limited benefits shown in this and other studies is because of the extremely limited scope of the training. Fourteen hours is not enough to improve people who are already performing adequately — but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t improve with more hours. I have yet to see any interventions with older adults that give them the amount of cognitive training you would expect them to need to achieve some level of mastery.
My third and final point is the specific nature of the improvements. This has also been shown in other studies, and sometimes appears quite arbitrary — for example, one 3-D puzzle game apparently improved mental rotation, while a different 3-D puzzle game had no effect. The point being that we still don’t understand the precise attributes needed to improve different skills (although the researchers advocate the use of a tool called cognitive task analysis for revealing the underlying qualities of an activity) — but we do understand that it is a matter of precise attributes, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
The main thing, then, that you should take away from this is the idea that different activities involve specific cognitive tasks, and these, and only these, will be the ones that benefit from practicing the activities. You therefore need to think about what tasks you want to improve before deciding on the activities to practice.