Tuesday,
September 30, 2014

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Mentally Challenging Activities Improve Memory as Baby Boomers Age

Denise Park

Dr. Denise Park

Seniors who step outside their comfort zones could be enhancing their memories beyond those who stick with what they know.

According to a new study by researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas, learning mentally challenging skills, such as digital photography, helps improve memory in older people. Engaging in less demanding activities, such as socializing or playing simple games, does not.

In an article published online in Psychological Science, Dr. Denise Park, lead researcher, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity, and Distinguished University Chair at UT Dallas, describes the Synapse Project. The project is testing how participation for several months in one of several learning or social environments might improve aspects of mental function.

“One of the key differences with our study from other interventions was that we didn’t ask people to participate in a specialized brain training program aimed solely at improving their mental abilities,” Park said. “Rather, this was a major lifestyle change for our participants – they each committed to do activities we prescribed for 15 hours a week for three months – the activities were all fun, everyday things, but they varied in how mentally challenging they were.”

The researchers compared people who learned complex quilting skills and/or digital photography, to people who only participated in a social club or did passive, easy tasks alone, like playing games of chance or listening to classical music at home.

“Only the quilting and photography groups, who were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge, improved their memory abilities,” Park said.

Study participants who spent time learning digital photography showed gains in memory.

Park and colleagues rented a storefront named the Synapse Center in Dallas to house the activities. A total of 221 seniors, 60 to 90 years old, participated in one of six groups in the experiment. One group learned photography with digital cameras – a task requiring very specific memories for verbal instruction and complex reasoning as they learned to use the equipment and the software to edit high-quality photos.

A second group learned to quilt with computer-controlled sewing machines, requiring the participants to think abstractly to create patterns and use reasoning skills to sew with the machines. An additional group divided its time between photography and quilting.

Two other groups participated in tasks that were low in cognitive demands. One was a social group that did things together that were fun but not intellectually demanding, such as playing games, telling stories or going on field trips to museums. Another group worked at home on low-challenge tasks, like listening to music, watching videos or playing easy word games. A final group did not participate in any of the activities, but took the same before-and-after assessments.

It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something — it is important to get out and do something unfamiliar and mentally
challenging.

Denise Park,
lead researcher, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity

Groups learning the most mentally challenging activities, photography or photography combined with quilting, showed significant gains in memory. Groups only participating in social relationships or working on simple tasks at home did not achieve the same effects.

“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something – it is important to get out and do something unfamiliar and mentally challenging,” Park said. “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone. What if engaging in fun, but challenging mental activities could slow the rate at which your brain ages? Although we don’t know now if this is true, we will study our participants for years to see if the cognitive enhancement effects persist. Maybe through our own activities, we can add a year of high-quality life and independence.”

Further research in this area is becoming increasingly important as people live longer, she said.

“As a society, we need to learn how to maintain a healthy mind – we know how to maintain vascular and heart health with diet and exercise, but we know so little about maintaining cognitive health,” Park said.

Other study authors include UT Dallas researchers Dr. Linda Drew, Dr. Sara Haber and Dr. Jennifer Lodi-Smith (now at Canisius College). Other UT Dallas researchers included Andrew Hebrank, Gérard Bischof and Whitley Aamodt.

This research was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Media Contact: Ben Porter, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2193, ben.porter@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu.


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