05/20/2014 01:17 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2014

The Arts Are Chocolate for the Brain

This was one of Dr. Gene Cohen's favorite sayings. He was a gero-psychiatrist, research scientist, and author of the book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. Dr. Cohen believed mature adults can improve their cognitive skills and overall health by participating in the performing and creative arts. Findings from his research studies and those conducted by other scientists support his claim. Engaging in the arts is a proven way to help maintain your health.

Crossword puzzles, word scrambles and other "brain games" are popular choices for people trying to preserve their memory. Yet, recent research shows these activities are not challenging enough. Learning a new skill, such as painting, singing in a chorus, or photography are better ways to keep your brain sharp.

As Dr. Denise Parks, Co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas Dallas, says, "When you're inside your comfort zone you may be outside the enhancement zone." In her research involving 200 older adults, some were randomly assigned to a new skill group such as learning to quilt or do digital photography. The others were assigned to either a social group that engaged in less mentally challenging activities such as watching movies or reminiscing about past vacations, or to a group that listened to music or did puzzles at home.

After spending 15 hours a week for three months at these activities, the participants' cognitive skills were retested. Only those in the new skill group showed significant improvement in memory and these gains were maintained at follow-up testing one year later. The largest gains were found for those who learned digital photography and Photoshop because it was the most difficult skill to learn. Dr. Parks believes these complex tasks involve making connections between diverse networks in the brain and strengthening these networks. Remember chocolate for the brain. When you are looking for an activity to improve brain health, choosing an arts program is likely to be your best bet.