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Learning A New Skill Works Best To Keep Your Brain Sharp

Seniors who learned more difficult skills like digital photography and Photoshop showed the greatest improvement in memory. (Courtesy of UT Dallas)

Brain training is big business, with computerized brain games touted as a way to help prevent memory loss. But new research shows you might be better off picking up a challenging new hobby.

To test this theory, Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, randomly assigned 200 older people to different activities. Some learned digital photography. Another group took up quilting.

"Quilting may not seem like a mentally challenging task," Park says. "But if you're a novice and you're cutting out all these abstract shapes, it's a very demanding and complex task."

The groups spent 15 hours a week for three months learning their new skills. They were then given memory tests and compared with several control groups.

"Rather than just comparing them to people who did nothing, we compared them to a group of people who had fun but weren't mentally challenged as much," Park says.

That "social group" did things like watch movies or reminisce about past vacations. Another control group worked quietly at home, listening to the radio or classical music or playing easy games and puzzles.

Park's research, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that not all activities are created equal. Only people who learned a new skill had significant gains.

"We found quite an improvement in memory, and we found that when we tested our participants a year later, that was maintained," Park says.

The greatest improvement was for the people who learned digital photography and Photoshop — perhaps, Park says, because it was the most difficult.

Jimmy Wilson, 82, agreed to learn to use a computer, a camera and Photoshop for the trial. "That was really quite a challenge for me when I got into the photo class," Wilson says, "because it involved a computer and I had never even touched a computer."

Wilson is motivated to fight dementia, in part because he saw what the disease did to his wife toward the end of her life.

"When my wife died," he says, "it would have been real easy to just become a total recluse." Instead, Wilson embraced being socially and mentally active. He's a member of the choir at his church, and when he's not reading current events and books on his Kindle, he gets together with family for Mexican food.

Since Wilson participated in the trial, he says, he has noticed improvement in his memory, although he says it still isn't perfect. He admits it can be frustrating learning to use new technology, but he knows it's good for his brain.

So how does learning a new skill help ward off dementia? By strengthening the connections between parts of your brain, says cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. While brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, Kaufman says, challenging activities strengthen entire networks in the brain.

"It really is strengthening the connectivity between these team players of these large-scale brain networks," he says.

Denise Park likens it to an orchestra.

"Players come in and players go out," she says. "Sometimes when something is really demanding, the whole orchestra is playing, but they're not playing harmoniously."

The goal is to keep each individual player in best form, and make sure there's coordination. And improving your own coordination, through quilting or learning to play bridge, may be a way to maintain your memory, and have a bit of fun, too.

"We hope that by maintaining a very active brain, you could defer cognitive aging by a couple of years," Park says.

There's one more important thing you can do to ward off memory loss: exercise. Art Kramer, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, studies the impact of exercise on the brain.

In one study, he found that just 45 minutes of exercise three days a week actually increased the volume of the brain. Even for people who have been very sedentary, Kramer says, exercise "improves cognition and helps people perform better on things like planning, scheduling, multitasking and working memory."

So if you're looking to boost memory, there's reason to challenge both your body and your mind.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in the battle against memory loss, several studies have shown the benefits of doing brain games, like crossword puzzles or Sudoku. A new study from the University of Texas suggests that learning new skills may be even more effective at keeping the mind sharp.

From member station KERA in Dallas, Lauren Silverman reports.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Jimmy Wilson, who's 82 now, decided not too long ago to learn Photoshop.

JIMMY WILSON: That was really quite a challenge for me when I got into the photo class because it involved a computer and I had never even touched a computer.

SILVERMAN: He agreed to learn to use a computer and a camera as part of a study looking at different ways to improve memory. Turns out, learning digital photography worked well. So did quilting.

DENISE PARK: Quilting might not seem like a mentally challenging task, but try it. If you're a novice, you're cutting out all these abstract shapes, you are trying to piece them together in reverse order and manipulate the images. It's very demanding and complex.

SILVERMAN: Denise Park is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas, Dallas. She led the study on improving episodic memory - recollections like your first day at a new job, or the people who used to live next door. More than two hundred seniors were randomly assigned to spend 15 hours a week quilting, snapping and editing photos or doing another activity.

PARK: The control conditions we had were very interesting. Rather than just comparing it to people who did nothing, we compared it to a group of people who had fun but were not mentally challenged as much.

SILVERMAN: That social group did things like watch movies, or reminisce about past vacations.

PARK: We had another group that worked quietly at home that we called the placebo group. It was things like listening to National Geographic - Diane Rehm's actually a favorite - playing easy games and puzzles, watching some high-end movies.

SILVERMAN: And here's what Park found - sorry NPR - not all activities are created equal. Only people who learned a new skill - quilting, photography - had significant brain gains - which held up after a year. The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, raise a question.

Why did learning digital photography have the most beneficial effect on memory function?

PARK: It was the hardest. I think they liked it the least.

SILVERMAN: It was a challenge Jimmy Wilson embraced. He watched his wife suffer from dementia a few years ago.

WILSON: When my wife died, it would have been real easy to just become a total recluse.

SILVERMAN: Instead, Wilson started singing with his church choir southeast of Dallas. And when he's not reading on the Kindle tucked under his arm he gets together with family for Mexican food. Wilson says he's maintaining his memory just fine.

WILSON: I have five children, nine grandchildren, and couple great-granddaughters and then one great, great grandbaby, Brianne Nicole.

SILVERMAN: Wilson is more than willing to challenge himself mentally to perhaps gain a few years of top brain function. So how does learning a new skill like digital photography ward off dementia?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: It really is strengthening the connectivity between these team players of these large scale brain networks.

SILVERMAN: Scott Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. While brain games help a little with short term memory, he says challenging activities like quilting strengthen entire brain networks.

PARK: You have to think of the brain as an orchestra.

SILVERMAN: Again Denise Park of UT Dallas.

PARK: Players come in and players go out. And sometimes when something is really demanding and you're distracted and everything's going on, the whole orchestra is playing, but they're not playing very harmoniously.

SILVERMAN: The goal is to keep the brain's individual players in tune and working together. Of course, Park says there's no insurance policy against Alzheimer's.

PARK: But we hope that by maintaining a very active brain that maybe you could defer cognitive aging by a couple years. Just like you can maybe keep your heart healthy and maintain your vascular system's health for a longer period, maybe we can do the same things with our minds.

SILVERMAN: There is one other thing that you can do to help ward off memory loss and keep your brain sharp - and that's exercise.

ART KRAMER: Walking, jogging, running, bicycling.

SILVERMAN: Art Kramer, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois has studied the impact of exercise on the brain.

KRAMER: We found that exercise, even for people who haven't been exercisers and are very sedentary tends to improve a number of different aspects of cognition, including executive function, which includes things like planning, scheduling, multi-tasking and working memory.

SILVERMAN: So if you're looking to boost memory, there's reason to both challenge your body and your mind.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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