A new study led by Sherry Willis, a human-development professor at Penn State University, appears to provide more evidence that brain training can affect cognitive decline associated with aging. The study provided some subjects with brain fitness exercises and compared their functioning to a control group that didn’t receive the training.

The memory training included organizing a 15-item grocery list into categories like dairy, vegetables and meat to make it easier to remember and locate items.

The reasoning training taught participants how to see patterns in everyday tasks such as bus schedules and taking medicines at different doses and times.

The speed training had participants quickly identify flashing objects on a computer screen. Those are some of the same reaction skills used while driving.

Nearly 90 percent of the speed training group, 74 percent of the reasoning group and 26 percent of the memory group showed almost immediate improvements in scores on tests of the mental functions they were trained in. The improvements in most cases lasted throughout the five years of the study and were most notable in people who got refresher sessions.

(From Use-it-or-lose-it brain theory put to the test via MSNBC.com) The study, to be published today in Journal of the American Medical Association, is the the toughest test of these hypotheses to date, according to Jeff Elias, chief of cognitive aging at the behavioral science research branch of the National Institute on Aging, the sponsor of the study.

It’s surprising and impressive that the effect of this training is measurable after five years. The use of random distribution between the subjects receiving training and a control group should also resolve some of the cause-and-effect concerns about prior work. The famous “nun study” found that nuns who remained actively engaged in mental activity postponed the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, though critics suggested that those less affected by the disease were more likely to be able to work longer and stay active.

The publication of this research is certain to set off a new wave of interest in brain fitness products and services.

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