TUESDAY, Oct. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Learning mentally challenging new skills such as digital photography may help keep older adults' minds sharp, a new study suggests.
But less-challenging activities -- such as doing word puzzles or listening to classical music -- aren't likely to provide any mental benefits, according to the report scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.
"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," lead researcher Denise Park, a psychological scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science.
"When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone," Park explained.
The study included 221 adults, aged 60 to 90, who were randomly assigned to take part in a particular type of activity for 15 hours a week for three months. Some of the participants were assigned to learn a new skill -- digital photography, quilting, or both -- that required a high degree of mental effort.
Other participants did more familiar activities at home, such as listening to classical music and completing word puzzles, or took part in a group that did social activities such as field trips and entertainment.
After three months, only the participants who learned a new skill showed improvements in memory.
"The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough," Park said. "The three 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."
The results provide new insights into how everyday activities can help keep people's minds sharp as they age, according to Park.
"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. We know so little right now," she said.
The researchers plan to assess the participants at one year and five years down the road to see if the beneficial effects of learning a new skill continue over the long term.
"This is speculation, but what if challenging mental activity slows the rate at which the brain ages? Every year that you save could be an added year of high-quality life and independence," Park said.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging offers advice for healthy brain aging.
SOURCE: Association for Psychological Science, news release, Oct. 21, 2013