Mental Fitness for Seniors

Isn't Mental Fitness as Important as Physical Fitness?

Posted May 19, 2015

Baby boomers are one of the largest aging cohorts ever. And, most of us are concerned with staying physically fit. We exercise and eat light. But what about our aging brains? How can we stay mentally fit? We do all kinds of twists and turns in yoga and care about physical agility, but what about mental agility? This question is especially urgent given the very large number of aging adults and the risks of dementia, Alzheimer’ s and accidents due to memory loss. What can seniors do to stay mentally fit?

Research on memory shows that crystallized intelligence, or verbal fluidity and vocabulary, continues to increase until about the age of sixty-five (Anastasi and Urbina 1997), but processing speed slows down. In other words, older adults cannot add a column of numbers as rapidly as they once could. This is normal aging. Even so, some seniors stay sharper than others. While most of the variability in aging is due to genetics, what if anything can be done to prevent loss of cognitive abilities?

In a well conducted experiment, Park, Smith, and Whitley (2014), studied 221 seniors aged 60 to 90 years on a battery of memory tasks. They collected pre-test and post-test memory data on processing speed, word recall, and visuospatial abilities. The authors designed several experimental conditions to compare the effects of various activities on memory. These experimental conditions were called productive engagement versus receptive engagement. Productive engagement meant activities such as digital photography and quilting which require working memory, long-term memory, and other executive processes as compared to receptive engagement tasks such as socializing with friends.

The results demonstrated clear cognitive gains due to productive engagement activities as compared to receptive engagement tasks. For example, the combination of learning digital photography and quilting improved memory more than passively socializing.  But, even more interesting is the finding that digital photography showed the strongest effect for gains in memory. This was a little surprising to the authors and me because quilting requires substantial visuospatial skills. The authors expected to find greater increases in visuospatial memory to due to learning quilting.  They explain this unexpected finding by saying that learning digital photography and computer editing requires more semantic skills and working memory than quilting.

At any rate, staying cognitively fit as we age is critical. Given that more seniors than ever will be driving, traveling, and working, there is an urgency to this question. There is even some preliminary evidence that staying cognitively fit can delay Alzheimer’s. So, give the importance of this question, what should we do? Intuition, observation, Grandma’s wisdom, and science all point to learning novel tasks. But, it is not enough to take on a fun new hobby, make sure the fun new hobby is rigorous and challenges you!

Anastasi, A. & Urbina, S. (1997). Psychological Testing (7th edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Psychol Sci. 2014 Jan:25(1): 103-112.