POST 50
10/21/2013 01:29 pm ET

Active Learning, Not Just Activity, Keeps The Brain Young

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Henry Ford was onto something. "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young," Ford said, and now new research shows he was indeed correct.

Older adults that engage in challenging mental activities actually improve their cognitive functioning, a University of Texas at Dallas-led study found.

Researchers took 221 adults, ages 60-90, and had them engage in some sort of mental activity for 15 hours a week over three months. Some were asked to try a new activity, which required them to learn, such as digital photography or even quilting. Another group stuck to familiar activities they'd do at home, like completing a puzzle or listening to classical music. The last group spent their time doing social activities, including field trips and other entertainment.

While each group was occupied in some way, three months later, researchers found only the first group had actively engaged their minds. The group undertaking new activities which required learning, showed improvements in memory compared to the other groups. Learning stimulates memory and high-level thinking in the brain, researchers say.

"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 said in a press release.

Results of a similar study released earlier this month also indicated that brain training exercises can improve memory, The Huffington Post reported.

Park acknowledged it can be daunting to venture outside your comfort zone. But she says we should approach learning in the same way we do regular exercise, widely accepted as being necessary to keep bodies healthy and fit.

It may be beneficial to the brain and memory to tease your brain for as little as two hours a week, according to some research. Post-50 participants in a University of Iowa study were able to delay the naturally occurring aging of some cognitive skills by just playing video games.

The researchers plan to follow up with the participants at one and five year intervals to see if the benefits remain long-term. Perhaps stimulating mental activity, like learning, could actually slow the rate the brain ages, researchers say.

So what are you waiting for? Go out there and learn to play the piano. Or how to make pottery or whatever it is you fancy.

What activity have you been wanting to try? Now's the time to do it.

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