Many elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment experienced better brain function after a "fitness" program designed to sharpen their minds, a U.S. study suggests.

Researchers put 127 elderly people on what they called a brain fitness regimen for 12 weeks that included meditation training, cognitive behavior therapy, and education about the Mediterranean diet, exercise, stress reduction and proper sleep habits.

By the end of the program, 84% of participants experienced significant improvements in cognitive function, researchers reported in a paper released online February 5 in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.

Among the random sample of 17 patients who received magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans at the beginning and end of the program, 12 had either no atrophy during the study or some growth in brain volume in their hippocampus, the region responsible for memory.

"You can choose a lifestyle that promotes rapid brain atrophy and dementia or one that accelerates brain growth and vitality," said lead study author Dr. Majid Fotuhi, a researcher at NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center in McLean, Virginia, and at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

"You need to decide if you can make choices that will rejuvenate your brain on a daily basis," Fotuhi added by email.

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Fotuhi and colleagues tested their brain fitness program in a group of elderly patients who were 71 years old on average.

At the start of the program, patients underwent standardized neurology evaluations to determine and address any potential medical causes for memory loss and cognitive impairment such as sleep apnea, depression or vitamin B12 deficiency.

Every participant also underwent MRI and brain mapping at the start of the program.

Then each week for the next three months, they all got two hours of cognitive skills training and neurofeedback therapy, which used sound and images to prompt the brain's circuits to work and then to rest. They also had one hour a week of counseling and coaching on lifestyle changes that are linked to better brain health.

Overall, 84% of patients had statistically significant improvements in at least three out of 10 areas of cognitive function, while another 9% had significant gains in at least two areas.

Among the subset of people who got follow-up MRIs at the end of the study, 9 of 17 patients had at least a 1% expansion in the volume of the hippocampus, enough to dial back the brain's age by several years and improve cognitive abilities.

Limitations of the study include the small size, the lack of randomization or a control group, and the difficulty of determining which of the many interventions may have been the most beneficial to cognitive function in elderly patients, the authors note.

"It is not yet proven how such an approach stalled atrophy or encouraged regrowth as measured by an increased volume," said Dr. Dale Bredesen, founding president of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and a researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an email. Bredesen wasn't involved in the study.

Many of the elements of the brain fitness program may have benefits that go beyond memory or cognitive abilities, said Stephanie Peabody, a neuropsychologist at Harvard Medical School who wasn't involved in the study.

"Brain health is inextricably tied to overall health; those without injury to the brain and/or thought or mood disorders live a healthier lifestyle, have fewer chronic diseases and remain healthier into older age," Peabody said by email. "Beyond this, those who optimize lifestyle behaviors including sleep, activity and nutrition are able to optimize almost all aspects of brain functioning."