By the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control measured “Health-Related Quality of Life,” based on how “quality of life” related to health and wellness. And, naturally, as our citizens continue to age and lifespans lengthen, scientists are researching and discovering that learning and memory can be used as tools for enhancing quality of life and overall health in older populations.
Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist with the University of Texas at Dallas, ran a study called The Synapse Project that involved 200 older adults. She wanted to see if learning something new would strengthen cognitive function. In this study, 200 people received training in brand-new skills. One group learned to quilt, another group learned digital photography, and a third group learned both. All groups spent about 16 hours per week studying and practicing these new skills over three months.
This study showed that acquiring new skills strengthens cognitive skills in older adults, especially when practiced regularly. Compared with control groups who spent the same amount of time on solo activities at home (like puzzles) or non-intellectual group activities (like watching movies), all new skill groups improved learning and memory skills. Taking the time to gain knowledge and practice newly-learned skills boosted memory even a year later for all participants who learned quilting, digital photography, or both.
Consider what interests you—not something you already know, but a subject or activity that's a new experience for you. Could you spend fifteen minutes a day engaging your learning and memory to begin developing a new skill? Explore something that has always interested you or something that grabbed your attention recently. It might be helpful to jot down a list of ideas on paper and add new ones as you're inspired.
Maybe you have wanted to learn a new language for decades. Has a particular culture always fascinated you? If you enjoy the sound of the mandolin, the piano, or any musical instrument, you can activate your learning and memory with daily practice.
Focus on building your new skills in the present moment and doing this regularly, over months. Community education classes can be a great place to look for topics, as well as online. When you're engaged in building these new skills, set a calendar reminder to practice for at least fifteen minutes each day.
Taking in new information and developing new skills can go a long way to improve cognitive health, mental health, and your quality of life, too. It provides an excellent tool, which can be added to your brain health arsenal to support your cognition and overall mental acuity.
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