Take up a mentally challenging task to stay sharp
Taking up a new mental challenge such as digital photography or quilting may help you maintain cognitive vitality even in old age, suggests new research.
"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,” said senior study author Denise Park from the University of Texas at Dallas in the US.
The findings were detailed in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.
The researchers compared changes in brain activity in 39 older adults that resulted from the performance of high-challenge activities that required new learning and sustained mental effort compared to low challenge activities that did not require active learning.
All of the participants underwent a battery of cognitive tests and brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.
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 socialise and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking with no active learning component.
After the 14-week period, the high challenge group demonstrated better memory performance after the intervention, and an increased ability to modulate brain activity more efficiently to challenging judgments of word meaning in the medial frontal, lateral temporal and parietal cortex regions of the brain.
These are brain areas associated with attention and semantic processing. Some of this enhanced brain activity was maintained a year later.
The findings show that mentally demanding activities may be neuroprotective and an important element for maintaining a healthy brain into late adulthood, the researchers said.