One of the biggest challenges older adults face is maintaining a healthy aging brain. To address such a concern, researchers have found that taking up mentally challenging activities is the key.
In a study published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, researchers suggested that tasks involving sustained mental challenge and effort would be effective in facilitating cognitive function. They worked with 39 older adults, all of whom underwent brain scans and cognitive tests, to compare the effects of high- and low-challenge activities on the brain.
Participants were segregated randomly into high-challenge, low-challenge and placebo groups. Those part of the high-challenge group were tasked to spend a minimum of 15 hours every week for 14 weeks to learn progressively difficult skills in quilting, digital photography or a combination of the two.
The low-challenge group got together for 15 hours each week, socializing and engaging in activities associated with subjects like cooking and travel without any active learning component.
The placebo group was given low-demand cognitive tasks like watching classic films, playing simple games or listening to music.
All of the participants were examined before the study period and after, while a subset formed from the previous groups were given new tests a year later.
Those from the high-challenge group showed better memory after the study period, as well as an increase in the ability to regulate brain activity more effectively depending on the task at hand, which is not unusual in young adults. The low-challenge group did not demonstrate the same change in ability.
These findings show that engaging in mentally challenging activities may have neuroprotective benefits and an important component of keeping the brain healthy well into late adulthood.
While their study does show some of the first evidence that engaging in mentally challenging activities can alter brain function, and may even have the potential to restore activity in the brain to a more youthful state, the researchers would like to conduct more comprehensive studies to see if the effect is universal.
Ian McDonough, the study's first author, put the implications of their work succinctly as "use it or lose it," a reference to a familiar adage.
Other authors for the study include: Denise Park, Gerard Bischof and Sara Haber.
Photo: Francisco Osorio | Flickr