Learning something new, such as digital photography or quilting, may help your residents maintain healthy brains into late adulthood, according to new research published in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

The investigators base their findings on a study of 39 older adults who randomly were assigned to one of three groups:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. Members of the high-challenge group demonstrated better memory performance after the intervention, and some of this enhanced brain activity was maintained a year later.

“The study clearly illustrates that the enhanced neural efficiency was a direct consequence of participation in a demanding learning environment,” said lead author Ian McDonough, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama. “The findings superficially confirm the familiar adage regarding cognitive aging of ‘Use it or lose it.’”

Senior author Denise C. Park, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Dallas, added, “Although there is much more to be learned, we are cautiously optimistic that age-related cognitive declines can be slowed or even partially restored if individuals are exposed to sustained, mentally challenging experiences.”