Cognitive Skills Training in Older Adults: What the Evidence Really Suggests

Kids engaging in cognitive training exercises, emphasizing the targeted nature of cognitive enhancements.

For years, the realm of cognitive research has been buzzing with one question: Can cognitive training truly enhance broad cognitive functions? Various efforts and resources have been channeled into identifying methods to boost cognitive skills, especially in specific populations like older adults. In the sporting world, where mental agility is as crucial as physical agility, the implications of such findings can be groundbreaking. However, as indicated by a comprehensive meta-analysis by Giovanni Sala and colleagues, evidence suggests that training cognitive skills does not necessarily translate to enhanced broad cognitive skills in older adults, especially in terms of transfer effects.

Read more: Cognitive Skills Training in Older Adults: What the Evidence Really Suggests

The Quest for Cognitive Enhancement: A Brief Overview

Over the past two decades, there has been an increasing push towards developing and refining cognitive training methodologies to enhance overall cognitive functioning. The end goal has always been clear: to find a mechanism through which cognitive function can be improved, and thereby help individuals, especially older adults, perform better in various tasks, including sports.

Digging Deeper: The Meta-Analysis on Older Adults

Sala and his team embarked on a robust meta-analytic review to investigate the effects of working memory (WM) training on the cognitive skills of older adults. The analysis covered three primary domains:

  1. The trained tasks
  2. Near-transfer measures
  3. Far-transfer measures

The results were quite revealing. While there were significant effects observed for the tasks that were directly trained, the near-transfer and far-transfer effects were quite modest or near-zero, respectively. When active control groups were considered, the far-transfer effects were non-existent.

Sporting Implications: Training Cognitive Skills for Athletic Performance

The world of sports often places an emphasis on cognitive skills, as they play a significant role in athletes’ performance. Understanding how training influences these cognitive abilities, especially in older athletes, can shape training regimens and expectations.

Given the findings of the meta-analysis, while it is evident that direct training can improve the trained tasks, expecting this training to have widespread benefits might be overly optimistic. This is especially crucial when designing training programs for older athletes. It suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to cognitive training may not yield desired results across various cognitive domains.

A Shift in Perspective: What this Means for Cognitive Training

The outcomes of this comprehensive meta-analysis reinforce the challenging nature of achieving transfer effects with cognitive training. It underscores the notion that working memory isn’t necessarily identical with other pivotal cognitive skills, such as fluid intelligence.

So, does this mean that cognitive training is futile? Not necessarily. It simply means that our approach to cognitive training needs to be more targeted and realistic. If the objective is to improve a specific cognitive skill, then direct training might yield positive outcomes. However, expecting this training to have ripple effects on other, unrelated cognitive functions might not be grounded in evidence.

Conclusion: Tailored Approaches and Managed Expectations

While the allure of a universally effective cognitive training regimen is enticing, especially in the context of sports, evidence suggests that training cognitive skills requires a more tailored approach. Recognizing that significant improvements in specific tasks might not automatically translate to broader cognitive enhancements is crucial.

For older adults, especially older athletes, this implies that training programs must be designed with specificity in mind. By aligning expectations with empirical evidence, we can pave the way for more effective and targeted cognitive training interventions that cater to the unique needs and potentials of individuals.


Giovanni Sala, N. Deniz Aksayli, K. Semir Tatlidil, Yasuyuki Gondo, Fernand Gobet,Working memory training does not enhance older adults’ cognitive skills: A comprehensive meta-analysis,Intelligence,Volume 77,2019,
101386,ISSN 0160-2896,

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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