Mentally-Challenging Activities In Old Age Help Keep Your Brain Healthy

First Posted: Jan 18, 2016 09:54 PM EST

As adults age, it's not just about staying physically active-it's also about staying mentally active.

New findings published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience show that engaging in both enjoyable and enriching lifestyle activities can be helpful with maintaining cognitive vitality.

"The present findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that mentally-challenging leisure activities can actually change brain function and that it is possible that such interventions can restore levels of brain activity to a more youth-like state," explained senior author Denise C. Park, PhD, of the Center for Vital Longevity, School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, said in a news release.

During the study, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas compared brain activity changes in 39 older adults that resulted from the performance of high-challenge activities requiring new learning and sustained mental effort compared to low-challenge activities that did not require active learning. All participants underwent brain scans with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and a number of cognitive tests. 

Participants were randomly assigned to the high-challenge, low-challenge, or placebo groups. The high-challenge group spent at least 15 hours per week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both. The low-challenge group met for 15 hours per week to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking with no active learning component. The placebo group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies. All participants were tested before and after the 14-week period and a subset was retested a year later.

The high-challenge group showed better memory performance following the intervention, as well an increased ability to modulate brain activity more efficiently.

"However, we would like to conduct much larger studies to determine the universality of this effect and understand who will benefit the most from such an intervention," Park concluded. 

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