Learning New Skills Keeps an Aging Mind Sharp

Posted on October 24, 2013

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.

“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.”


Category(s):Aging & Geriatric Issues

Source material from Psychological Science


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