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Short Mental Workouts May Slow Decline of Aging Minds, Study Finds

Rating

1 Star

Short Mental Workouts May Slow Decline of Aging Minds, Study Finds

Our Review Summary

This is a story about one of the few long term studies looking at the potential for cognitive training to alter the rate of cognitive decline with aging. It describes results from a second report from the ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) study.  For the lay reader, the report falls short in several places.  Most importantly, the article hypes the problem of Alzheimer's, dementia and similar disorders, when the study is about cognitive decline in normal aging.  Second, there was very little in the way of reporting on specific results and it was not clear from the story what were the specific findings of the actual study. The missing context that could have easily been provided (along with other information about preventive options) would have greatly strengthened the study.

Although the ACTIVE study is commendable, it has certain limitations that were acknowledged.  The participants in this study had a mean education level of 13+ years of schooling, in a population with an average age of 73.  For example –  will the results obtained in this group with relatively high levels of education translate to people with lower levels of education?

The story included several misleading statements about the study.  The story mentioned staving off mental decline in middle-aged and elderly people whereas the study only included people who were 65 years of age or older to start, with an average age at the start of 73.  Thus they could hardly be considered middle-aged.

The story reported that the results of the study would be analogous to finding that "if someone went to the gym Monday through Friday for the first two weeks of the new year, did no exercise for five years, and still saw significant physical benefits in 2012."  This analogy does not hold up – first, because the study included booster sessions in intervening years and, secondly, because it would be expected that individuals who had received training would make use of what they had learned in the time between studies.

Finally, it is very difficult to interpret the results reported in the story, understand what they mean and see how they derived from the study.  For example – the story reported that "those that got the speed training did 300 percent better than the control group."  What exactly was it that the speed trained people were 300% better at? This is explained in the study, but not in the story. Readers need this information in order to weigh the potential benefits of the intervention.

 

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Although the story mentioned that 'Mental activities do not have to involve expensive toys…" there was no estimate of costs that might be associated with the types of mental activies described in the study nor how one might find someone trained in these interventions to work with.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The benefits that a senior citizen might reasonably expect to obtain through cognitive training were not presented clearly.   The reader has no idea from the information presented the size of the changes observed.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no discussion of possible harms or comparisons of the harms between three cognitive training activities examined in this study.  Perhaps there were none, but the story did not address the issue.  The story included the example "Knowing how to figure out directions and find a new route on a map, for example, could allow someone to retain mobility even after their night vision deteriorates" though maintenance of this cognitive component might give someone false security about driving under conditions where they are physiologically not up to the tasks.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story included several misleading statements about the study.  The story mentioned staving off mental decline in middle-aged and elderly people whereas the study only included people who were 65 years of age or older to start, with an average age at the start of 73.  Thus they could hardly be considered 'middle-aged'.

There was very little in the way of reporting on specific results and it was not clear from the story what were the specific findings of the actual study.

The story reported that the results of the study would be analogous to finding that "if someone went to the gym Monday through Friday for the first two weeks of the new year, did no exercise for five years, and still saw significant physical benefits in 2012."  This analogy does not hold up – first because the study included booster sessions in intervening years and secondly because it would be expected that individuals who had received training would make use of what they had learned in the time between studies.

Lastly – it is very difficult to interpret the results reported in the story, understand what they mean and see how they derived from the study.  For example – the story reported that "those that got the speed training did 300 percent better than the control group."  What exactly was it that the speed trained people were 300% better at? 

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

The story said, "Experts said the federally funded study is a call to action for anyone who has ever worried about developing Alzheimer's, dementia and similar disorders." But the research reported on was not about prevention of actual diseases, only about preservation of some mental acuity.  Age-related decline in cognitive capacity is not the same as development of age-related disease.

In addition – the article included reference to inability to drive at night, which is something of great concern but is not relevant to the study described.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

Two authors of the study and the author of an editorial on the study were used as sources of information for this story. 

 

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story did not mention other sorts of lifestyle interventions that have been postulated to help individuals age successfully.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Although the story did contain advice (from the lead author of the study) about working on puzzles that are more difficult, something new, and stretch the mind – the nature of the three distinct interventions used with the ACTIVE study participants was not clear, nor was the difficulty of finding people to work with on these specific sorts of mental training activities mentioned.  How one might access the interventions used in the study was not clarified for the reader.  It is also not clear how the study interventions actually relate to the kinds of examples given in the story such as doing puzzles.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story reported on the most recent results from the ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) Study.  But the story did not mention that these outcomes do not substantially differ from the earlier results of the ACTIVE study.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

Does not appear to rely on a press release.

Total Score: 2 of 10 Satisfactory

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