Background: Several reports suggest beneficial impacts of either physical or mental activity on cognitive function in old age. However, the differential effects of complex mental and physical activities on cognitive performance in humans remain to be clarified.
Methods: This randomized controlled trial evaluates a cognitive and a physical standardized 6-month activity intervention (3 x 1.5 h/wk) conducted in Berlin (Germany). Two hundred fifty nine healthy women aged 70-93 years were randomized to a computer course (n = 92), an exercise course (n = 91), or a control group (n = 76), of whom 230 completed the 6-month assessment. Group differences in change over a period of 6 months in episodic memory (story recall, possible range, 0-21; word recall, possible range, 0-16), executive control (working memory, ie, time quotient of Trail Making Tests B/A), and verbal fluency were evaluated by analyses of covariance (intention to treat) adjusting for baseline, fluid intelligence, and educational level.
Results: In contrast to the control group, both the exercise group, DeltaM (SD) = 2.09 (2.66), p < .001, and the computer group, DeltaM (SD) =1.89 (2.88), p < .001, showed improved delayed story recall. They maintained performance in delayed word recall and working memory (time measure) as opposed to the control group that showed a decline, DeltaM (SD) = -0.91 (2.15), p = .001, and DeltaM (SD) = 0.24 (0.68), p = .04, respectively.
Conclusions: In healthy older women, participation in new stimulating activities contributes to cognitive fitness and might delay cognitive decline. Exercise and computer classes seem to generate equivalent beneficial effects.