Older adults are often encouraged to stay active and engaged
to keep their minds sharp, that they have to "use it or lose it." But
new research indicates that only certain activities, like learning a mentally
demanding skill like photography, for instance are likely to improve cognitive
These findings, forthcoming in Psychological Science, a
journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that less
demanding activities, such as listening to classical music or completing word
puzzles, probably won't bring noticeable benefits to an ageing mind.
"It seems it is not enough just to get out and do
something it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and
mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and
socially," says psychological scientist and lead researcher Denise Park of
the University of Texas at Dallas. "When you are inside your comfort zone
you may be outside of the enhancement zone."
The new findings provide much-needed insight into the components
of everyday activities that contribute to cognitive vitality as we age.
"We need, as a society, to learn how to maintain a
healthy mind, just like we know how to maintain vascular health with diet and
exercise," says Park. "We know so little right now."
For their study, Park and colleagues randomly assigned 221
adults, ages 60 to 90, to engage in a particular type of activity for 15 hours
a week over the course of three months.
Some participants were assigned to learn a new skill digital
photography, quilting, or both which required active engagement and tapped
working memory, long-term memory and other high-level cognitive processes.
Other participants were instructed to engage in more
familiar activities at home, such as listening to classical music and
completing word puzzles. And, to account for the possible influence of social
contact, some participants were assigned to a social group that included social
interactions, field trips, and entertainment.
At the end of three months, Park and colleagues found that
the adults who were productively engaged in learning new skills showed
improvements in memory compared to those who engaged in social activities or
non-demanding mental activities at home.
"The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough,"
says Park. "The three learning groups were pushed very hard to keep
learning more and mastering more tasks and skills. Only the groups that were
confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved."
The study is particularly noteworthy given that the
researchers were able to systematically intervene in people's lives, putting
them in new environments and providing them with skills and relationships:
"Our participants essentially agreed to be assigned
randomly to different lifestyles for three months so that we could compare how
different social and learning environments affected the mind," says Park.
"People built relationships and learned new skills we hope these are gifts
that keep on giving, and continue to be a source of engagement and stimulation
even after they finished the study."
Park and colleagues are planning on following up with the
participants one year and five years down the road to see if the effects remain
over the long term. They believe that the research has the potential to be
profoundly important and relevant, especially as the number of seniors
continues to rise:
"This is speculation, but what if challenging mental
activity slows the rate at which the brain ages?" asks Park. "Every
year that you save could be an added year of high quality life and