Older individuals face many challenges as their bodies age, but one of the biggest challenges at hand for aged adults has to do with their minds: cognitive health. Keeping the mind healthy and clicking like a well-oiled machine is a top priority for those who grow old, and researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas have addressed the issue firsthand, claiming that by taking up a mental challenge like quilting or digital photography can help maintain brain health in older individuals.
The team of researchers, led by Ian McDonough, performed a study that found that tasks that involve a sustained mental effort or challenge can promote positive cognitive function, the underlying mechanism of which has been previously misunderstood, according to a news release. Evidence has shown that many enriching activities and enjoyable lifestyle tasks are associated with mental vitality.
"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," coauthor Denise Park said. "However, we would like to conduct much larger studies to determine the universality of this effect and understand who will benefit the most from such an intervention."
McDonough and Park examined the brain activity of 39 individuals before and after the experiment, and retested the participants a year later. The individuals were split into three groups, one performing high-challenge activities and one performing low-challenge activites, along with a placebo group. The high-challenge activities required learning a new skill and exertion of mental effort, whereas the low-challenge activities that did not. The participants were subject to use of fMRI to measure their brain activity.
The high-challenge group spent 14 weeks learning new skills that progressed in difficulty for 15 hours per week, in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of the two. The low-challenge group also participated for 15 hours a week, socializing and engaging in travel and cooking related subjects that yielded no learning challenge. The placebo group spent time watching classic movies, listening to music, or playing simple games.
Not only did the high-challenge group show better memory performance, but they showed a completely increased ability to modulate their brain activity to challenge word-meaning judgements in three areas of the brain - the medial frontal, lateral temporal, and parietal cortex - all of which are associated with semantic processing and attention. Even a year later, the enhanced activity was still maintained.
"The study clearly illustrates that the enhanced neural efficiency was a direct consequence of participation in a demanding learning environment," McDonough said. "The findings superficially confirm the familiar adage regarding cognitive aging of 'Use it or lose it.'"
Before participation, the individuals showed their brains performing at maximum activity levels during activities that required difficult word-meaning judgement similarly high levels during easy judgement. After participation, neural efficiency was shown to increased, as the individuals were able to modulate activity to the demands of the task at hand - meaning easy tasks required lower levels and difficult activities higher.
"Although there is much more to be learned, we are cautiously optimistic that age-related cognitive declines can be slowed or even partially restored if individuals are exposed to sustained, mentally challenging experiences," Park said.