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Multitasking “training” keeps skills strong

With regular training, seniors’ brains can multitask as well as those of people 50 years younger, research shows.

As long as they’re exercised frequently, older adults’ brains can multitask as well as – or even better than – those of people in their twenties.

Using the online brain-training platform Lumosity, neuroscientists from the University of California-Irvine examined the multitasking performance of older vs. younger users over a period of five years. They focused specifically on data from a task-switching game called “Ebb and Flow,” which challenges the brain’s ability to shift between cognitive processes interpreting shapes and movement.

They found that Lumosity users between the ages of 71 and 80 who played the game frequently could perform cognitively as well as individuals 50 years younger. This is an increasingly valuable skill, they said, given the high volume of information adults are faced with each day, which can challenge the brain’s ability to focus and be particularly taxing for older people.

“The brain is not a muscle, but like our bodies, if we work out and train it, we can improve our mental performance,” said lead author Mark Steyvers, a UCI professor of cognitive sciences. “We discovered that people in the upper age ranges who completed specific training tasks were able to beef up their brains’ ability to switch between tasks in the game at a level similar to untrained 20- and 30-year-olds.”

A key word in Steyvers’ statement, though, was “untrained” – the seniors’ cognitive advantage against younger users declined once the 21-30-year-olds had completed more than 10 practice sessions. By contrast, the most successful older adults in the study had completed more than 1,000 sessions.

“Medical advances and improved lifestyles are allowing us to live longer,” Steyvers said. “It’s important to factor brain health into that equation. We show that with consistent upkeep, cognitive youth can be retained well into our golden years.”

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