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Pick Up a New Hobby and See Your Memory Improve!

Quilting(Treadwell, 2012)

As the older population grows in numbers, there is an increasing social urgency to find ways to maintain or even improve one’s cognitive health.  As we age, declines in memory, attentional control, speed of processing, and problem-solving abilities are expected and are considered to be typical of normal, healthy aging. Past studies have shown the links between participation in cognitive, leisure and social activities with improved cognitive ability, as well as a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.  However little evidence has been found on whether sustained lifestyle engagement can help to maintain or improve cognitive function.  This study by Park et al. (2013) sought to examine the impact of sustained engagement on the cognitive abilities of older adults. This study is called the “Synapse Project” because unlike normal cognitive training, in which participants come in for an experiment that typically last a few hours or a few days, the participants in this study agree to make a lifestyle change in that they are learning new, demanding real-world skills in a social environment. This allows us to see the true effects of the acquisition of the new skill over time on the participants’ cognitive abilities.

In this specific experiment (Park et al., 2013) participants spent approximately 15 hours per week over a 3-month span learning or participating in their designated task. You may be given the opportunity to participate in a digital photography class in which you learn all about the camera as well as computer software used for editing different photos you have taken. There was also a class, offered for those less tech-savvy people out there, that individuals participated in a quilting class where they started with basic stitches and worked their way up to more complex patterns. Other people were allowed to a combination of the two so that they attended both quilting and digital photography classes with other individuals. The individuals in these three classes learned new, challenging skills that were cognitively demanding, in that they stimulated many different areas of the brain. All of these classes were in group form and had an instructor allowing for social interaction with the other people in the classes. There was another group that went on field trips, social outings, cooked, and watched movies, but didn’t necessarily learn anything new and demanding. Another group was involved in tasks like crossword puzzles, completing word-meaning, and listened to classical music.

This study by Park (2013) found that those individuals who were actively engaged in new, demanding and challenging tasks, specifically those individuals in the photo condition, experienced great improvements in episodic memory. Episodic memory is  the memory for specific events, situations or experiences. For example, the person who attended the photography class over this 3-month span, may be better able to to recall their first kiss, their first dance at their wedding, or their daughter’s graduation speech. Having a better episodic memory, because it contains memories of your personal life history, is therefore very important to self-identity. If a person is able to improve their episodic memory, it will translate into an improved confidence and self-efficacy of the individual, which is sure to translate in improvements in other aspects of the individual’s life and overall quality of life.

To access the original article, click here.

Park, D. C., Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L., Haber, S., Hebrank, A., Bischof, G. N., & Aamodt, W. (2013). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: The synapse project. Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797613499592

Treadwell, Jaine. Age-Old Tradition. Digital image. The Troy Messenger. N.p., 26 Mar. 2012. Web. <http://www.troymessenger.com/2012/03/26/age-old-tradition/>.

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  1. December 3rd, 2014 at 17:46 | #1

    As I read this blog post, I was reminded of “desirable difficulties” and how that enhances our ability to learn or remember better. In PS232, we learnt about the positive effects of desirable difficulties, such as distributed practice, on a later test on the same content that was being practiced. So, it was interesting to see the beneficial effects of “desirable difficulties” in improving memory through learning a new skill (E.g. learning how to use a camera)—even if it is completely irrelevant to the type of “test” (recalling episodic memory).

    It was quite surprising to learn that learning a new skill increased memory performance more than practicing crossword puzzles and word-meaning tasks. I had always thought that games like crossword puzzles and sudoku were ‘brain stimulating’ tasks that worked as efficient anti-aging agents. It is good to know though, that we could enhance our memory by just doing picking up a new hobby—which could be more fun than sitting down and filling in numbers or letters.

    One question that I had, however, was whether semantic memory would be enhanced equally after learning/practicing a new skill. Increasing semantic memory (ability to learn new general information) may be as important as increasing episodic memory in older adults. I guess that it may be possible that crossword puzzles, word-meaning tasks or Sudoku games could be better agents at increasing semantic memory, even though it may not have been effective in increasing episodic memory.

  2. December 2nd, 2014 at 20:36 | #2

    This post describes something that we all think about: aging. No one wants to have decreased cognitive abilities and we all want to be as “with it” as possible. Everyone wants to improve their mental health and mental abilities. I thought the experiment was very interesting. The people who were engaged in learning new material showed significant improvements in cognitive abilities, which shows that people who are constantly looking for new things to learn and participate in tend to have better cognitive abilities. A question I had while reading this was how accurate are these new memories people say they can now retrieve? The post mentions that the new photographer may be able to remember his or her first dance at his or her wedding better. Is this an accurate retrieval? Why can they better retrieve these important memories? Arguing that the brain is a muscle, and got stronger with these new challenges? Overall, this post successfully connected the article to our everyday lives, showing that we should try learning new things if we want to improve our cognitive functions.

  3. March 18th, 2014 at 20:17 | #3

    I really enjoyed reading this post. First of all, I find the topic very intriguing. Obviously, cognitive function is expected to deteriorate at some point in the aging process, but what can be done to lessen the symptoms or slow the process. While there are biological factors at play, it’s important to examine whether cognitive function also declines due to a lack of mental stimulation, which can certainly be associated with one’s last years of life. So it was encouraging to see that we do have the capacity to counteract some negative effects that come with old age, simply engaging in n that require cognitive functions such as attention, memory, etc. I thought you did a nice job explaining the procedure of the study, as it was very easy to follow. On an end note, I did find it interesting that episodic memory was improved through the activities. I would assume that some sort of attentional capacity would improve, but still interesting!

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