A Delayed Advantage: Multi-Session Training at Evening Hours Leads to Better Long-Term Retention of Motor Skill in the Elderly

Front Aging Neurosci. 2019 Nov 22;11:321. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2019.00321. eCollection 2019.


The acquisition and retention of motor skills is necessary for everyday functioning in the elderly and may be critical in the context of motor rehabilitation. Recent studies indicate that motor training closely followed by sleep may result in better engagement of procedural ("how to") memory consolidation processes in the elderly. Nevertheless, elderly individuals are mostly morning oriented and a common practice is to time rehabilitation programs to morning hours. Here, we tested whether the time-of-day wherein training is afforded (morning, 8-10:30 a.m., or evening, 6-9 p.m.) affects the long-term outcome of a multi-session motor practice program (10 sessions across 3-4 weeks) in healthy elderly participants. Twenty-nine (15 women) older adults (60-75 years) practiced an explicitly instructed five-element key-press sequence by repeatedly generating the sequence "as fast and accurately as possible." The groups did not differ in terms of sleep habits and quality (1-week long actigraphy); all were morning-oriented individuals. All participants gained robustly from the intervention, shortening sequence tapping duration and retaining the gains (> 90%) at 1-month post-intervention, irrespective of the time-of-day of training. However, retesting at 7-months post-intervention showed that the attrition of the training induced gains was more pronounced in the morning trained group compared to the evening group (76 and 56.5% loss in sequence tapping time; 7/14 and 3/14 participants showed a > 5% decline in accuracy relative to end of training, respectively). Altogether, the results show that morning-oriented older adults effectively acquired skill in the performance of a sequence of finger movements, in both morning and evening practice sessions. However, evening training leads to a significant advantage, over morning training, in the long-term retention of the skill. Evening training should be considered an appropriate time window for motor skill learning in older adults, even in individuals with morning chronotype. The results are in line with the notion that motor training preceding a sleep interval may be better consolidated into long-term memory in the elderly, and thus result in lower forgetting rates.

Keywords: actigraphy; chronotype; elderly; evening; morning; motor skill; multi-session training; retention.