We normally associate cognitive decline with aging, but a new study shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. The journal Psychological Science recently published a study, suggesting that seniors can improve their cognitive function by engaging in certain activities. However, the report also showed that only activities that are mentally challenging and engaging can make the difference. Less demanding activities like listening to classical music may not have a significant influence on mental development.
New experiences lead to better cognitive function
In the study, conducted by the University of Texas, it was found that not just any activity can bring about the positive cognitive development in seniors. The key is to do something that the brain is not familiar with, so that there is a broad mental and social stimulation. Research lead, Denise Park stated that being inside our comfort zone could mean straying away from the enhancement zone. Opening up the mind to new experiences and fresh challenges is an important step to maintaining our mental health.
The study involved randomly assigning activities to 221 participants between the ages of 60 and 90. Each participant had to engage in their assigned activity for 15 hours every week during a three-month course. For some of the participants, they were required to pick up a new skill such as quilting, digital photography, or both. These are the activities that involved active mental engagement and affected both long-term and working memory as well as high-level cognitive processes.
On the other hand, other participants were assigned more familiar in-home activities like completing word puzzles or listening to classical music. Some were also assigned to social groups, where they could participate in social interactions, entertainment, and field trips. This was to account for the influence social contact might have on cognitive function. Once the three-month period ended, researchers discovered that the first group, which productively engaged in picking up new skills displayed clear signs of improved memory unlike the other two groups.
Mental challenge and its effects on cognitive development
Park stated that all three groups were strongly encouraged to continue learning and mastering more skills. At the end, the only groups that showed improved memory were the ones that were continuously made to face mental challenges for prolonged periods of time. It is worthy to note that the researchers systematically intervened in the lives of the participants and placed them in new environments. Participants could not only learn new skills but also build relationships.
The researchers will be following up with the study to find out if the effects last for a long time. They will be arranging a follow-up session with the participants after one year and then five years, so that they can clearly observe how the mentally challenging activities affect their lives in the long run. Park also believes that even if there is just a slight chance challenging mental activity could slow down mental aging, it could make a huge difference to the lives of seniors. She stated that if this was indeed possible, every year you save could mean one more year of high quality life.