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Baycrest Study Co-led by Trent Researcher Shows Promise in Slowing Down Normal Deterioration of Mental Ability in Older Adults


Rehab Program First to Evaluate Rehabilitating a Wide Range of Cognitive Functions Used by Aging Adults in Every Day Life

Thursday, January 18, 2007, Peterborough

A recent study testing a brain boosting mental exercise program on healthy aging adults, undertaken by Baycrest’s Research Centre for Aging and the Brain, and co-led by Dr. Gordon Winocur, a Trent University researcher and senior scientist from the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, has shown some very positive results in terms of developing a new approach to cognitive rehabilitation that could one day help healthy older adults slow down the mental deterioration that occurs with normal aging.

Working from the knowledge that, as we age, our “executive functions” – the ability to pay attention, remember to do things and in the right sequence, avoid distraction, organize our day, solve problems, and plan ahead – become harder to do, the study was conducted on 49 older adults ranging in age from 71 to 87 who were experiencing normal cognitive decline. It is the first study to evaluate a comprehensive approach to rehabilitating a wide range of cognitive functions that older adults typically use in their every day lives.

“We wanted to devise a cognitive rehabilitation program that would produce improvement over a relatively short period of time, so participants could build on that while they’re still functional and slow down the rate of decline,” explains Dr. Winocur. “If we can work with people in the early stages of cognitive decline, then we can slow down the rate of this decline and help them maintain a higher level of function for a longer period of time.”

Throughout the 12-week cognitive rehabilitation program, participants completed three distinct modules – memory, goal management, and psychosocial function. In the memory skills training, participants were shown how to use internal and external strategies for learning, retaining and recovering information. Goal-management training emphasized the enhancement of attentional control to reduce everyday memory slips, monitor goal attainment, and simplify cognitively demanding real-life tasks. Psychosocial training was designed to enhance psychological wellbeing and build participants’ confidence in their cognitive abilities.

The study also included a six-month follow-up which found that participants continued to use the strategies long after the training had finished. By the end of the program, participants showed “significant improvement” in memory, practical task planning and psychosocial function.

“Participants experienced a 15 to 40 per cent improvement in their cognitive functions after taking the program. When we tested them six months later they showed an even higher increase in improvement, which suggests the more they practiced using the strategies over time the better they got at it,” says Dr. Winocur. “Their psychological wellbeing – which includes self-esteem, confidence and feelings of happiness – improved dramatically in tandem with the improvements in their cognitive functions.”

While the results of this cognitive rehab program are very promising, it is still a “prototype” and more research is required to refine the approach, says Dr. Donald Stuss, coordinator of the study and director of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest. “Our study essentially lays the blueprint for developing a versatile program that can be adapted to different populations, such as adults with normal memory changes, or those with mild cognitive impairment (pre-Alzheimer’s state), traumatic brain injuries, or vascular cognitive impairment associated with stroke.”

He adds that it will be at least four to five years before such a cognitive rehabilitation program would be available to older adults through community clinics.

The clinical-experimental study produced five papers, which were published by Baycrest and highlighted in special section in the January 2007 issue of the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society (JINS). The papers report on the results from three different rehabilitation modules, and include an introductory paper and a section on future directions. Dr. Winocur authored two of the five papers. The online edition is available at: www.journals.cambridge.org/jid_INS.

One of Canada's top universities, Trent University is renowned for striking a unique balance between outstanding teaching and leading-edge research. The University is consistently recognized nationally for faculty who maintain a high level of innovative research activity and a deep commitment to the individual student. Distinguished by excellence in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences and increasingly popular professional and graduate programs, Trent is dedicated to providing its students with an exceptional world view, producing graduates who are ready to succeed and make a difference in the world.  Trent's Peterborough campus boasts award-winning architecture in a breathtaking natural setting on the banks of the Otonabee River. Together with its satellite campus in Oshawa, Trent draws excellent students from throughout the country and around the world. 

Baycrest is an internationally renowned academic health sciences centre affiliated with the University of Toronto. Baycrest provides a spectrum of health care services to older adults, and conducts basic and applied research with a strong focus on brain functioning and mental health.

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For more information or to arrange an interview with Dr. Gordon Winocur, please contact:
Brittany Cadence, Communications Officer, Trent University, (705) 748-1011 x5371; or
Kelly Connelly, Senior Media Officer, Baycrest Research Centre for Aging and the Brain, (416) 785-2432, kconnelly@baycrest.org