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Old Minds, New Tricks—and Healthier Brains

A recent study found learning a new skill can improve memory function in seniors. Learn what activities can boost your memory as you age.

When it comes to memory and cognitive skills, seniors are often told to use it or lose it. Doing crossword puzzles, spending time with friends and completing other mentally engaging activities have long been known to keep your mind in top shape. However, a study published in the journal Psychological Science found that learning a new skill is one of the best ways to keep your memory sharp.

The study featured three groups—one that learned either digital photography, quilting or both; one that completed more familiar activities that challenged the mind, such as listening to classical music and completing crossword puzzles; and one that participated in social interactions (including planned field trips). At the end of the study, researchers found that adults who learned a new skill had better memory than the other two groups.

When to Start and Where to Look

It’s never too late to start a new hobby. Look for opportunities to try these activities close to your home:

  • Digital photography. Combining art and technology, learning how to work your digital camera past the automatic functions can help you create beautiful photographs of cherished memories. See if you can audit a photography class at a local community college or if a freelance photographer can spare a few hours to show you the basics.

  • Quilting. Learning to quilt can be as simple as learning how to sew a stitch. Craft stores and specialty sewing stores often have quilting classes aimed at beginners.

  • Dancing. Whether you choose ballroom, clogging, jazz or tap, learning how to strut your stuff on the dance floor for the first time engages your mind and body. Studios, community centers and senior centers often offer dance lessons and classes geared toward beginning dancers of all ages.

  • Knitting. Portable, easy and fun, knitting engages your mind and your hands. Look for a how-to book at your favorite bookstore or for a class at a local fabric or craft store.

  • Playing a musical instrument. Whether guitar, piano, flute or drums, a musical instrument is an outlet for your creativity and a boost for your mind. If you do not have the resources to purchase or rent an instrument, join a choir—you do not need the voice of an angel to learn to read music and gain a new skill.

Is There an App for That?

Many computer games or apps brag that they can train your brain or memory. While research is still ongoing, early studies suggest that these brain-training apps only target certain aspects of your brain function. For example, a game designed to improve memory of facts you hear will only improve that one section of function—and the evidence is limited about whether the benefits of the game carry over to real life.

Your best bet for a better brain is staying active, mentally and physically, by learning new activities and exercising at least 30 minutes a day. A balanced diet is also a contributor to a healthy mind.

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