As the name implies, executive function is important. It involves the prefrontal cortex, which has a high level of neural plasticity (Miller, E.K., & Cohen, D.J. (2001), “An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 167-201. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.167), meaning that it is amenable to training. This current blog post provides a very brief summary of an article by Justin E. Karr, Corson N. Areshenkoff, Phillipe Rast, and Mauricio A. Garcia-Barrera titled “An Empirical Comparison of the Therapeutic Benefits of Physical Exercise and Cognitive Training on the Executive Functions of Older Adults: A Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials” in Neuropsychology (2014), 829.845.
A meta-analysis is an analysis of a large body of research. This one involved 46 studies, 23 involving physical exercise (PE), 21 cognitive training (CT), and 2 involving both. Cognitive training did not work for individuals who were already cognitively impaired. Otherwise, both types of training improved executive functions, but CT presented potential advantages for specific types of cognitive functions. The immediately previous post discussed these executive functions: working memory, inhibition, executive attention, problem solving, and fluency. The review found that cognitive training on problem solving had the largest beneficial effect on the measure of Independent Activities of Daily Living (IADL).
Although the study found that the effects of cognitive training were larger than physical exercise, they qualified this conclusion. I would contend that it is foolish to argue which is better. They both provide benefit. Presumably the major benefit from physical exercise is due to aerobic activity increasing oxygen flow to the brain. I am curious as to whether any activity that increases respiration might be beneficial, laughing for example. Feel free to add whatever techniques you can think of for increasing respiration. I think it would be worthwhile for researchers to explore possible benefits of these types of activities. One of the primary advantages of cognitive training is that they can be targeted at specific cognitive functions. Further research could be explored at designing training to improve specific functions where training is most needed. The types of training might vary among individuals. This meta-view has found that, general speaking, problem solving skills had the largest effect.
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