The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Keeps You Sharp

Learning new skills in a social setting keeps your mind and brain sharp.

My mom joined a watercolor painting group in her early 70s. She had been a visual artist and potter for most of her life, but watercolors presented a new challenge and chance to make new friends. Her painting group makes road trips together to do outdoor ‘plein air’ watercolors throughout New England four times a year. A few members of the painting group branched off into a book club which meets once a month for dinner to discuss their latest read. My mom and all her peers in the painting group are very sharp.

A study released on October 21, 2013 confirms that what my mom and her friends are doing by learning new and demanding skills while maintaining an engaged social network are key to staying sharp as we age. The study titled, "The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project" will be published in an upcoming Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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The findings reveal that less demanding activities, such as listening to classical music or simply completing word puzzles, probably doesn’t provide noticeable benefits to an aging mind and brain. Older adults have long been encouraged to stay active and to flex their memory and learning like any muscle that you have to "use it or lose it." However, this new research indicates that not all mind-engaging activities improve cognitive function.

Lead researcher Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas says, “It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone."

The new findings are part of a push to figure out the components of everyday activities that contribute to cognitive vitality as we age. "We need, as a society, to learn how to maintain a healthy mind, just like we know how to maintain vascular health with diet and exercise," says Park. "We know so little right now."

New Skills + Friends = Cognitive Strength

For their study, Park and colleagues randomly assigned 221 adults, ages 60 to 90, to engage in a particular type of activity for 15 hours a week over the course of three months. Some participants were assigned to a ‘learning group’ where they were challenged to master a new skill — digital photography, quilting, or both — which required active engagement and tapped working memory, long-term memory and other high-level cognitive processes.

Another group of participants were asked to engage in more familiar activities in the comfort zone of being home — such as listening to classical music and completing word puzzles. To account for the possible influence of social contact, some participants were assigned to a 'social group' that only included social interactions without any skill-based learning dimension such as going on a field trip or some type of entertainment.

After a three month immersion, Park and colleagues found that the adults who were productively engaged in learning new skills showed much greater improvements in memory compared to those who engaged in social activities or non-demanding mental activities at home.

"The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough," says Park. "The learning groups were pushed very hard to keep learning more and mastering more tasks and skills. Only the groups that were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved."

Conclusion: Lifestyle Choices Can Improve Cognition at Any Age

Denise Park concludes, “People built relationships and learned new skills – we hope these are gifts that keep on giving, and continue to be a source of engagement and stimulation even after they finished the study." Park and her colleagues are planning to follow up with the participants a year from now and will continue to check on their cognitive function to see if the benefits of these lifestyle changes remain over the long term.

The researchers believe that these findings have the potential to be profoundly important and relevant, especially as the number of seniors continues to rise: "This is speculation, but what if challenging mental activity slows the rate at which the brain ages?" asks Park. "Every year that you save could be an added year of high quality life and independence." 

If you'd like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blogs: "4 Lifestyle Choices that Will Keep You Young", "Can Practice Alone Create Mastery", "The 'Right Brain' Is Not the Only Source of Creativity", "The Neuroscience of Superfluidity."

*The watercolor featured above is by Mary Jo Litchard. Thanks, Mom! 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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