Mary Harrison, School of Psychology
Studies have suggested that environmental enrichment may have a significant effect on age-related cognitive decline. The present study was conducted to determine if living in an enriched environment within a prison setting had any effect on cognitive function in older adults. Using 14 instruments that tested executive function/dysfunction, general cognitive flexibility, gestaltic closure, attention span, intellectual ability, emotional state, sensorimotor ability, language, mood, and visual-spatial abilities, we compared the cognitive functioning of two groups of male prisoners age 55 and older. One group of men (True Grit) had been living in an enriched environment for a period of time ranging from 8 months to 7.25 years. The control group was composed of a demographically similar cohort of men who had been living in the general prison population, with minimal environmental enrichment, for a similar period.
The results of the study demonstrated that men in the True Grit group performed better, with effect sizes ranging from small to large, on 13 of the test instruments than did Controls. Scores on tests of executive function suggest that living in an enriched environment was associated with better cognitive flexibility, enhanced verbal fluency, and improved problem-solving ability in comparison to living in the general prison population. On the test of physical mobility and balance (TUG), Controls performed less well than True Grit men, even though their average age was 2 years younger.
Effect size for the six measures of executive function ranged from small to medium in favor of the test group, while effect sizes for six of the other seven measures ranged from medium to high. This suggests that the independent variable (enriched environment) did have a significant effect on maintaining cognitive activity, and might be a useful preventive measure in terms of cognitive decline.
Keywords: “Use it or lose it”; cognitive ability; aging; prisoner; executive function; environmental enrichment; cognitive intervention