Seniors who received as little as 10 sessions of mental training were still exhibiting improved cognitive skills an entire decade later, according to a new study.

“One of the reasons that this is surprising has to do with how little training we did with participants, about 10 to 18 sessions,” said researcher Michael Marsiske, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions.

“This would be like going to the gym for between five and 10 weeks, never going again, and still seeing positive effects a decade later.”

After receiving cognitive training, the participants, ages 65 to 96, also reported significantly less difficulty with daily living tasks, such as housework, medication management, and shopping.

“Our prior research suggested that the benefits of the training could last up to five years, or even seven years, but no one had ever reported 10-year maintenance in mental training in older adults,” said Marsiske. The study was carried out by UF Health researchers with the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE.

For the study, 2,832 seniors were divided into groups to complete 10 training sessions in the following categories: memory, reasoning, or speed of processing. ”These skills were chosen because of their importance for daily living and because there is evidence that they decline with old age,” Marsiske said.

Each session lasted for 60- to 75-minutes and was conducted over a five- to six-week period. Some seniors were randomly given booster training 11 and 35 months following the initial training. The control group received no training.

Researchers conducted outcome assessments right after the training and again two, three, five, and 10 years later.

“If we can boost these basic skills we think we can also boost everyday functioning or help people maintain their independence,” said Marsiske.

At the 10-year mark, nearly 75 percent of study participants who received reasoning training and more than 70 percent of speed of processing participants were performing at or above their baseline level compared with about 62 percent and 50 percent, respectively, of control participants.

“With the ACTIVE study I think we’ve permanently shattered the myth that old dogs, and older humans, can’t learn new tricks,” Marsiske said. “I think underlying that is a clear understanding, not just from our work, but from the work of others, that a critical thing to do as we get older is to challenge ourselves with new things.”

“Oftentimes older adults will ask ‘Should I do crossword puzzles?’ And yes, those are a wonderful thing to do. But if you’re an expert crossword puzzler, late life is the time to take on some new challenge. So play video games or learn an instrument, because learning new things seems to be the real secret to maintaining mental functioning in old age.”

The study findings appear in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society.