-- Robert Preidt
TUESDAY, Oct. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Learning mentally
challenging new skills such as digital photography may help keep
older adults' minds sharp, a new study suggests.
But less-challenging activities -- such as doing word puzzles or
listening to classical music -- aren't likely to provide any mental
benefits, according to the report scheduled for publication in an
upcoming issue of the journal
"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," lead researcher Denise Park, a psychological scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science.
"When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone," Park explained.
The study included 221 adults, aged 60 to 90, who were randomly
assigned to take part in a particular type of activity for 15 hours
a week for three months. Some of the participants were assigned to
learn a new skill -- digital photography, quilting, or both -- that
required a high degree of mental effort.
Other participants did more familiar activities at home, such as
listening to classical music and completing word puzzles, or took
part in a group that did social activities such as field trips and
After three months, only the participants who learned a new
skill showed improvements in memory.
"The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough," Park said. "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 results provide new insights into how everyday activities
can help keep people's minds sharp as they age, according to
"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. We know so little right now," she said.
The researchers plan to assess the participants at one year and
five years down the road to see if the beneficial effects of
learning a new skill continue over the long term.
"This is speculation, but what if challenging mental activity slows the rate at which the brain ages? Every year that you save could be an added year of high-quality life and independence," Park said.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging offers advice for
healthy brain aging.
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