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Learn challenging new skills to maintain memory during retirement

October 22, 2013

Maintaining a sharp mind is of the utmost importance to many seniors, and while enjoying mentally stimulating activities is certainly a good place to start, new research suggests that older adults need to embrace challenging pursuits to reap all the benefits. The study, conducted by experts from the University of Texas at Dallas and published in the journal Psychological Science, found that learning a new skill such as digital photography is more likely to offer cognitive rewards than more passive activities such as listening to classic music. 

New experiences
To discover the best route to healthy aging, researchers focused on a group of more than 220 adults between the ages of 60 and 90. The team instructed the participants to take part in a particular kind of activity for 15 hours a week over the course of three months. Some of the subjects were asked to develop a new skill, while the others were told to focus their efforts on activities such as completing crossword puzzles. By the end of the study, it was clear that the group tasked with learning a new talent saw the greatest improvements to memory.

"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," said lead researcher Denise Park. "When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone."

Count one for continuing education
The findings are significant because they highlight another considerable benefit of continuing education for seniors. Whether they want to head back to the classroom to stay socially engaged or earn a degree, returning to school after retirement is certainly a challenging mental exercise. This is a fact that has not gone overlooked by many schools across the country, some of which provide classes specifically tailored for the senior population. Of these programs, the Plus 50 Initiative is among the largest. Operated by the American Association of Community Colleges, the program was launched in an effort to encourage schools across the country to engage the senior student population.