Learning New Skills Can Keep An Aging Mind Healthy
October 21, 2013

Learning New Skills Can Keep An Aging Mind Healthy

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Though the mind has previously been understood to be like a muscle — one must exercise it to keep it strong — a new study suggests simple exercise alone won’t be enough to keep a healthy and active brain late in life.

According to a new study conducted by the University of Texas at Dallas and soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, only those activities which are especially mentally taxing will improve mental functions as one ages. The lesser and more common activities, such as completing crossword puzzles or listening to classical music aren’t likely to improve cognitive functions in older adults, but learning new skills such as photography or quilt making will.

According to psychological scientist and lead researcher Denise Park, this study will help future generations understand how the brain ages and what can be done to keep it healthy throughout the years.

“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,” said Park in a statement. “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

For the study, Park and team recruited 221 adults aged 60 to 90 years old to engage in certain activities for just 15 hours a week over the span of three months. These volunteers were asked to either learn a new skill — such as photography, quilting or both — or engage their brain with classical music and crossword puzzles. New skills were chosen because they have been found to be more mentally engaging as they tap into active and working memory. A third group was asked to socialize with their friends to measure the effects of social interaction on cognitive brain functions.

After the three-month test, Park and associates found those who had learned a new skill and accessed their working memory showed an improvement in their memory. Those who listened to music at home or socialized with their friends did not see the same kind of improvement.

“The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough,” said Park, explaining the results. “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.”

There’s an added benefit to the study, of course. Because the research asked these adults to change their lives for three months, Park hopes those who learned new skills will continue to practice them while those who socialized will continue to regularly meet with their new friends.

“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,” said Park. “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.”

Though this study measured memory in aging adults, it’s worth noting the difference between it and intelligence.

A recent study found that while some brain teasers may improve mental dexterity, they aren’t enough to improve intelligence or memory. This study was also published in the journal Psychological Science.