August 30, 2018
3 min read

Brain training: What PCPs need to know

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George Rebok
George Rebok

Cognitive decline is a distressing aspect of growing older for many people and it affects a large proportion of the aging population, according to a presentation by George Rebok, PhD, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, at Johns Hopkins Science Writers’ Boot Camp.

Brain training can aid in improving cognitive performance among older patients, Rebok told Healio Internal Medicine.

“For instance, by training the brain on specific cognitive skills like memory, the ability to quickly process information or the ability to solve problems can improve performance in those particular areas,” he said.

Cognitive training tends to be target-specific, he noted. Training memory skills are unlikely to improve other cognitive skills, he said.

“However, there’s also growing evidence that brain training can transfer or generalize to everyday skills and abilities,” Rebok said. “By improving things like memory or processing performance, the patients’ ability to carry out everyday living tasks, such as managing medications, managing finances, preparing meals or driving, may also improve.”

Brain training can aid in improving cognitive performance among older patients.
Source: Adobe Stock

Evidence suggests that memory training can also improve sleep quality and reduce depression, according to Rebok.

“These effects can go beyond what’s being trained and have other positive aspects that may improve people’s perceptions of their own self-efficacy and their confidence and their ability to learn,” he said. “In some of our studies we found that people — at least anecdotally — report that they’ve undertaken tasks that they wouldn’t have done if they did not have brain training.”

A study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia found that older adults receiving speed of processing cognitive training had a 29% lower risk for dementia after 10 years.

Older adults who are interested in cognitive training can participate in formal programs, but there are also ways that they can challenge their brain in their day-to-day lives, such as writing a grocery list and reciting it an hour later, learning the names of clerks at local businesses, memorizing license plates, carrying out calculations without a calculator or discussing a TV show or newspaper article with a friend, he said.

Other beneficial strategies for older adults are finding activities that they enjoy doing and will continue to do, whether it’s learning a new language, going to a painting class or learning a new hobby, according to Rebok.

Brain training must be embedded into the patients’ broader lifestyle, he said. Patients need to practice good health habits regarding diet, exercise, sleep and stress to optimize the effects of brain training, he emphasized.


“It is never too early, nor is it ever too late to engage in brain training,” Rebok said.

There are no currently known side effects of brain training, he said. Patients who do not see progress with or do not have supports for brain training, may feel anxious or worried, but “by and large the effects are positive for brain training,” he said.

Rebok emphasized that it is important for clinicians to be aware of the different options in terms of brain training. Conveying the message to older patients that cognitive performance and everyday skills can be improved through brain training is also helpful, he said.

There is no single magic bullet or magic pill to combat cognitive decline, according to Rebok.

“It is much more complicated than that and physicians should not raise false hope,” he said. “Don’t tell patients to just do a crossword puzzle every day or sign up for a brain training program and that will have all the answers — that’s really oversimplifying it.”

“Rather, clinicians have to be aware of how brain training fits into the broader picture of their patients’ lives. Saying that there is something that can be done and that there are good programs and connecting patients with those programs is something that they can certainly be doing.” – by Alaina Tedesco


Edwards JD, et al. Alzheimers Dement. 2017;doi:10.1016/j.trci.2017.09.002.

Disclosure: Rebok reports no relevant financial disclosures.