As one enters their later years, experts suggest that keeping your mind active with things like puzzles and word games could help prevent memory loss. But a study this year from the University of Texas in Dallas showed that working on a crossword puzzle may not be enough; people 60 and over have to keep learning new skills in order to improve long-term memory, with digital photography mentioned as one of them.
The study, which looked at 221 participants aged 60 to 90, found that those who were split into groups that did simple activities, like doing crossword puzzles and listening to classical music, had no improvements in “staying sharp” than those in groups that engaged in developing new skills like digital photography, quilting, painting, or things that require “continuous and prolonged mental challenge.” The study was conducted for 15 hours a week and over a period of three months, and was published in Psychological Science.
Dr. Denise Park of the University’s Center for Vital Longevity, who led the study, said, “When you’re inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone. We need, as a society, to learn how to maintain a healthy mind just like we know how to maintain vascular health with diet and exercise. We know so little right now.
“The findings suggest engagement alone is not enough. The three learning groups were pushed very hard to keep learning more and mastering more tasks and skills. Only the groups that were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved,” Park said.
Experts don’t know of any sure way of preventing memory loss later in life, and Park acknowledges the study is based on a theory. Her team plans to follow up with the participants in a year and then in five-years time. The study seems like common sense – you feel smarter whenever you develop a new skill. But as people age, the desire to learn new things may not be as strong, and it’s this contentment that could affect our long-term memory, the study suggests. So, the next time your elderly family members say they don’t feel like trying anything new, perhaps it’s time to give them a little push and encouragement.
”This is speculation, but what if challenging mental activity slows the rate at which the brain ages? Every year you save could be an added year of high quality life and independence.”