How to slow the brain drain
DALLAS — After she retired from her job as a medical transcriptionist, Elaine Savage grew isolated. She rarely went out or talked to friends on the phone. She relied on her family to do her grocery shopping.
Then, a class changed her life.
After seeing a leaflet, Savage signed up to take part in a study on aging run by psychologists at the University of Texas at Dallas. There, researchers assigned her to a 14-week course on digital photography and quilting.
Meeting new people and learning new things whet her appetite for adventure. Since the course ended, Savage, now 67, has kept up her quilting and plans to enter the State Fair of Texas competition this year; stayed in touch with her classmates, taking the bus to meet them for lunch once a month; and has enrolled in new classes — the history of religion, English composition, jewelry making — at El Centro College in downtown Dallas.
Participating in the university study, Savage says, “is probably one of the highlights of my life.”
Those results are well beyond what Denise Park, head of the university’s Center for Vital Longevity, might have expected. Park, a psychologist, studies the aging mind. Along with many other researchers, she is hunting for clues that will help older adults preserve their cognitive health for as long as they have their physical health.
Her study, published in January in the journal Psychological Science, found that adults who took the same combination of classes as Savage improved their memory and the speed with which they processed information more than volunteers who joined a social club or stayed home and did educational activities such as playing word games. “Being deeply engaged is key to maintaining the health of the mind,” Park says.
As people age, the frontal areas of the brain — those associated with learning, reason and memory — shrink. White matter, the tissue that connects different regions of the brain and helps them communicate, grows more porous. The brain compensates by working harder, much like one’s heart when one is out of shape.
Those physical changes in the brain lead to declines such as memory lapses, difficulty learning new things and trouble shifting focus from one task to another.
Many studies have shown that people who stay intellectually engaged throughout life are more likely to maintain their mental acuity. But it’s been unclear which condition causes the other: Is it that the intellectual activity causes people to maintain a healthy mind, or is it that the healthiest people are the ones who stay intellectually engaged?
To help answer that question and others, Park and her colleagues recruited 259 Dallas-area residents between the ages of 60 and 90 and assigned them randomly to six different groups.
Three of the groups were involved in actively learning new things: One took 14 weeks of digital photography classes, one took 14 weeks of quilting classes, and one — Savage’s group — spent seven weeks on quilting before moving on to digital photography. Volunteers were required to spend an average of 15 hours per week on their activities, including class time and completing assignments.
The other three groups participated in activities that required only passive observation or relied on subjects’ existing knowledge: participating in a social club, going on field trips, playing games and watching movies together; doing word games and reading magazines at home; and completing a weekly checklist of daily activities.
Those who took both photography and quilting fared the best. They significantly boosted the speed with which their brains processed information and improved their memories. The group that studied only photography also improved memory significantly but not processing speed. The rest of the groups failed to show marked improvement on any of the tests.
Park was surprised that joining a social club did not come with a bigger cognitive payoff. “The study shows that it’s not just about getting out there and having a good time,” she says. “It really does matter that people challenge themselves.”
Previous studies have found that a variety of activities, including taking acting classes, volunteering regularly at elementary schools and taking dance lessons, can improve memory in older adults.
There is also some evidence that video games and computer exercises can improve cognition. A study published in the journal Nature in September reported that a custom-designed 3-D game called Neuro-Racer dramatically improved multitasking abilities in adults between the ages of 60 and 85.
After playing the game for one hour per day, three times a week for four weeks, the older volunteers attained multitasking skills on the game that exceeded those of untrained 20-year-olds. They also showed improvements in attention and short-term memory.
Park says it’s possible to get just as many, if not more, cognitive benefits by going out into the real world and living life. “I’ve never been a fan of cognitive training, because it’s boring,” Park says. She adds: “It’s not social, and it doesn’t build a better world for you.”
Classes confer benefits that “keep on giving,” she says, just as Savage’s example shows.
But there are still many unanswered questions. For instance, why don’t all adults benefit from these classes? Among Savage’s peer group of 42 students, 25 showed statistically significant improvements on their memory scores, 12 fared about the same and five registered declines.
“Is it possible for all of us to live to age 100 or 110 if we just pick the right activities?” says Helga Noice, a psychologist at Elmhurst College. “I think we really don’t know.”
While more results come in, Park recommends that older adults seek out activities that are not only mentally challenging but also novel. “If you’ve never painted, be a painter,” she says.
“If you’ve always painted, learn a new language, or learn to play the piano, or take dance classes.” Traveling abroad to a foreign country without a tour group is another option. The point is to seek out stimulating activities that are enjoyable and will lead to similar engaging experiences.
As Savage’s example suggests, once you get outside your comfort zone, you may never want to go back.
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