Learning new skills: Key to better cognitive skills at old age

Word puzzles may not be enough, the brain needs bigger challenges at an old age to stay in prime fitness

"Use it or lose it."  is an advice that is often proffered to old men and women.  This is usually meant in the context of the brain. As the brain ages, if we don't make frequent use of it, our cognitive abilities wane. New research has clarified that only certain activities — a challenging one like like photography,  — may help in this context.

"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."

"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."

In this research, Park and colleagues chose 221 adults, ages 60 to 90, and asked them to do a  particular type of activity for 15 hours a week. This continued for three months at a stretch.

Some participants were had to learn a new skill — digital photography, quilting, or both. This meant that their brain was thoroughly challenged when they were learning to take photographs or to make quilts.

Other participants had to do  less challenging tasks at home such as listening to classical music and completing word puzzles.

The results were quite clear. The adults learning new skills showed more improvements in memory compared to those who engaged in  non-demanding mental activities.

"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."

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