Learning for Life

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Older adults are often encouraged to stay active and engaged to keep their minds sharp. But new research indicates that only certain activities — learning a mentally demanding skill like photography, for instance — are likely to improve cognitive functioning.
These findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that less demanding activities, such as listening to classical music or completing word puzzles, probably won’t bring noticeable benefits to an aging mind.
“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas. “When you are inside your comfort zone, you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”
For their study, Park and colleagues randomly assigned 221 adults, ages 60 to 90, to engage in a particular type of activity for 15 hours a week over the course of three months.
At the end of three months, Park and colleagues found that the adults who were productively engaged in learning new skills showed improvements in memory compared to those who engaged in social activities or non-demanding mental activities at home.
“These findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough,” says Park. Park and colleagues are planning on following up with the participants one year and five years down the road to see if the effects remain over the long term.
­The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology.

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