A study involving 39 older adults has found that those randomly assigned to a “high-challenge” group showed improved cognitive performance and more efficient brain activity compared with those assigned to a low-challenge group, or a control group.
The high-challenge group spent at least 15 hours a week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both. The low-challenge group met to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking. The placebo group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies.
The high-challenge group demonstrated increased neural efficiency in judging words, shown by lowered brain activity when word judgments were easy and increasing activity when they became hard. This is a pattern of response typical of young adults, and was not seen in them before the intervention, or among those in the other groups. To some extent, these changes were still seen a year later.
Moreover, there was a dose-dependent effect — meaning, those who spent more time engaging in the high-challenge activities showed the greatest brain changes.
So did those who were oldest, perhaps because their brains were most in need, perhaps because they were the most disengaged. Most likely, perhaps, because both of these were true.
The bottom line, though, is that, while all mental stimulation is good in terms of building cognitive reserve, actively learning, and really pushing yourself, is what you need to get to, or keep at, the top of your game.
(2015). The Synapse Project: Engagement in mentally challenging activities enhances neural efficiency.
Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. 33(6), 865 - 882.