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 — learning a mentally demanding skill like photography, for instance — are likely to improve cognitive functioning.
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 aging 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.”
Click to read the rest of "Learning New Skills Keeps an Aging Mind Sharp."
Abstract from the study:
In the research reported here, we tested the hypothesis that sustained engagement in learning new skills that activated working memory, episodic memory, and reasoning over a period of 3 months would enhance cognitive function in older adults. In three conditions with high cognitive demands, participants learned to quilt, learned digital photography, or engaged in both activities for an average of 16.51 hr a week for 3 months. Results at posttest indicated that episodic memory was enhanced in these productive-engagement conditions relative to receptive-engagement conditions, in which participants either engaged in nonintellectual activities with a social group or performed low-demand cognitive tasks with no social contact. The findings suggest that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances memory function in older adulthood, but, somewhat surprisingly, we found limited cognitive benefits of sustained engagement in social activities.And from the Summary:
Overall, the results suggested that learning digital photography, either alone or in combination with learning to quilt, had the most beneficial effect on cognition, and that the positive impact was primarily on memory function. We note that the photo condition was considerably more demanding of episodic memory, and this may explain its greater facilitative impact relative to quilting: In the photo condition, there was a great deal of information presented to novice users of computers and cameras regarding complex photographic software, whereas the quilt condition had a somewhat stronger procedural component after the initial skill-acquisition period. The finding of improved episodic memory as a function of engagement without direct memory training is similar to that reported for the Experience Corps trial, in which participants worked with school children over the course of an academic year (Carlson et al., 2008), and is also similar to findings from a study in which older adults showed episodic-memory improvement as a result of theatrical training (Noice, Noice, & Staines, 2004).