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 somethingit 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 socia
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Association for Psychological Science