Memory games, Sudoku, classical music—all have been touted as beneficial brain-toning techniques for aging adults. But when it comes to maintaining cognitive functioning as you get older, you may want to start thinking outside of the crossword puzzle box, according to a new study.
The best way to build brainpower especially in your later years is to tackle an entirely new skill, according to researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas. “When you’re inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone,” says study author Denise Park, Ph.D., director of the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study.
In their study, Park and her team split a group of over 200 adults over age 60 into different groups. Some seniors engaged in familiar activities—brain teasers, social outings and listening to classical music—while others performed more complex tasks, such as learning how to quilt or take high-quality digital photographs.
After three months of participating in their prescribed activities for 15 hours per week, the group that was assigned the complex tasks performed better on memory tests.
The brain benefits of learning new skills
With the fear of diseases such as Alzheimer’s lurking in our collective subconscious, it’s no wonder we want to find ways to preserve brain functioning. While there’s no concrete scientific evidence that lifestyle interventions such as diet, exercise, etc. can prevent or delay dementia, adopting healthier behaviors is always an advisable idea.
The mind (like the body) gradually adapts to the activities it performs on a regular basis. Running through a few memory drills might sharpen your brain for a little while, but forging stronger neural pathways requires you to consistently take on fresh mental challenges.
Check out some of the following ways to step outside your mental comfort zone:
Get out of a rut: Human beings are routine machines. In order to conserve physical and mental energy, we come up with shortcuts for performing practically every task. To break the cycle, try taking an alternate route on your way to work.
Hit the books: With the explosion of free online education, there’s almost no limit to what you can learn, often free of charge. Check out iTunesU and Coursera for online courses in everything from “Jazz Improvisation” to “Plagues Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction.”
Switch hands: Only about one percent of people are ambidextrous, so chances are you’ve got at least one hand that’s a little out of practice. Try eating dinner with your non-dominant hand—or even simply writing your name.
Take a nap: A recent study found that brain cells shrink by about 60 percent during sleep, allowing chemical waste that builds up over the course of the day to be more easily flushed out.
How will you challenge yourself today?
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By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor