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Learning A New Skill Works Best To Keep Your Brain Sharp

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Learning A New Skill Works Best To Keep Your Brain Sharp

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Learning A New Skill Works Best To Keep Your Brain Sharp

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in the battle against memory loss, several studies have shown the benefits of doing brain games, like crossword puzzles or Sudoku. A new study from the University of Texas suggests that learning new skills may be even more effective at keeping the mind sharp.

From member station KERA in Dallas, Lauren Silverman reports.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Jimmy Wilson, who's 82 now, decided not too long ago to learn Photoshop.

JIMMY WILSON: That was really quite a challenge for me when I got into the photo class because it involved a computer and I had never even touched a computer.

SILVERMAN: He agreed to learn to use a computer and a camera as part of a study looking at different ways to improve memory. Turns out, learning digital photography worked well. So did quilting.

DENISE PARK: Quilting might not seem like a mentally challenging task, but try it. If you're a novice, you're cutting out all these abstract shapes, you are trying to piece them together in reverse order and manipulate the images. It's very demanding and complex.

SILVERMAN: Denise Park is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas, Dallas. She led the study on improving episodic memory - recollections like your first day at a new job, or the people who used to live next door. More than two hundred seniors were randomly assigned to spend 15 hours a week quilting, snapping and editing photos or doing another activity.

PARK: The control conditions we had were very interesting. Rather than just comparing it to people who did nothing, we compared it to a group of people who had fun but were not mentally challenged as much.

SILVERMAN: That social group did things like watch movies, or reminisce about past vacations.

PARK: We had another group that worked quietly at home that we called the placebo group. It was things like listening to National Geographic - Diane Rehm's actually a favorite - playing easy games and puzzles, watching some high-end movies.

SILVERMAN: And here's what Park found - sorry NPR - not all activities are created equal. Only people who learned a new skill - quilting, photography - had significant brain gains - which held up after a year. The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, raise a question.

Why did learning digital photography have the most beneficial effect on memory function?

PARK: It was the hardest. I think they liked it the least.

SILVERMAN: It was a challenge Jimmy Wilson embraced. He watched his wife suffer from dementia a few years ago.

WILSON: When my wife died, it would have been real easy to just become a total recluse.

SILVERMAN: Instead, Wilson started singing with his church choir southeast of Dallas. And when he's not reading on the Kindle tucked under his arm he gets together with family for Mexican food. Wilson says he's maintaining his memory just fine.

WILSON: I have five children, nine grandchildren, and couple great-granddaughters and then one great, great grandbaby, Brianne Nicole.

SILVERMAN: Wilson is more than willing to challenge himself mentally to perhaps gain a few years of top brain function. So how does learning a new skill like digital photography ward off dementia?

SCOTT KAUFMAN: It really is strengthening the connectivity between these team players of these large scale brain networks.

SILVERMAN: Scott Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. While brain games help a little with short term memory, he says challenging activities like quilting strengthen entire brain networks.

PARK: You have to think of the brain as an orchestra.

SILVERMAN: Again Denise Park of UT Dallas.

PARK: Players come in and players go out. And sometimes when something is really demanding and you're distracted and everything's going on, the whole orchestra is playing, but they're not playing very harmoniously.

SILVERMAN: The goal is to keep the brain's individual players in tune and working together. Of course, Park says there's no insurance policy against Alzheimer's.

PARK: But we hope that by maintaining a very active brain that maybe you could defer cognitive aging by a couple years. Just like you can maybe keep your heart healthy and maintain your vascular system's health for a longer period, maybe we can do the same things with our minds.

SILVERMAN: There is one other thing that you can do to help ward off memory loss and keep your brain sharp - and that's exercise.

ART KRAMER: Walking, jogging, running, bicycling.

SILVERMAN: Art Kramer, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois has studied the impact of exercise on the brain.

KRAMER: We found that exercise, even for people who haven't been exercisers and are very sedentary tends to improve a number of different aspects of cognition, including executive function, which includes things like planning, scheduling, multi-tasking and working memory.

SILVERMAN: So if you're looking to boost memory, there's reason to both challenge your body and your mind.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman.

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