Forget Crossword Puzzles – Learn a New Skill to Keep Your Brain Young

By Breanna Draxler | November 11, 2013 2:37 pm

brain-remembersTo keep your brain young, you may want to trade your Sudoku book for a sewing machine. That’s based on the results of a recent study that say the combination of learning new skills and being creative can keep your gray matter in tip-top shape.

Recess for Grown-Ups

Researchers studied more than 200 participants who were between 60 and 90 years old. The participants were assigned to do one of six activities for about 17 hours a week. The first three tasks were active, requiring participants to learn new skills and apply them to creative projects: 1) learning digital photography, 2) learning to sew quilts, and 3) learning both photography and quilting.

The other groups’ tasks were passive, focusing instead on being social or gaining fact-based knowledge: 4) participating in a social club, cooking and playing familiar games, and 5) watching documentaries and doing crossword puzzles. The sixth group served as a control and simply participated in their normal activities.

None of the participants had dementia and, to keep things fair, no one knew how to quilt or do digital photography prior to the study.

Overcoming an Aging Brain

After three months, the researchers tested the subjects’ cognitive skills to check for changes. Participants who did photography, with or without the quilting, showed the most improvement when it came to episodic memory (recalling the specific times and places of past experiences). And those who practiced both photography and quilting boosted their mental speed.

The socialites, on the other hand, saw none of these improvements. This suggests, somewhat surprisingly, that things like socializing, gaining information or simply experiencing something new do not actually improve mental capacity. Nor does your Grandma’s go-to stack of crossword puzzle and other “brain games.”

As Jalees Rehman describes at SciLogs,

The general trend was that the groups which placed the highest cognitive demands on the participants and also challenged them to be creative (acquiring digital photography skills, learning to make quilts) showed the greatest improvements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, suggest that even an aging brain can regain lost abilities, but learning new skills and being creative are key.

Image credit: art4all/Shutterstock

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