We are constantly reminded to “use it or lose it,” and new research from the University of Texas at Dallas shows the same is true for keeping your brain up to speed.

No one likes the idea of slowing down as they age, but a new study suggests that challenging yourself to learn a new skill can bring noticeable benefits to an aging mind.

The Administration on Aging predicts that there will be 72.1 million Americans aged 65 and over by the year 2030 – 19% of the population. And the new research provides insight into how everyday activities contribute to cognitive vitality as we age.

Lead researcher, Denise Park, PhD, from the University’s School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, says:

“We need, as a society, to learn how to maintain a healthy mind, just like we know how to maintain vascular health with diet and exercise.”

For the research, published in Psychological Science, Professor Park and her colleagues studied 221 adults aged between 60 and 90 for a period of 3 months.

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Researchers found that older people who engaged in mentally challenging tasks, such as learning a new skill, were more mentally agile than those who stayed home.

The researchers randomly assigned participants an activity and asked them to engage in it for 15 hours each week.

Some participants were asked to learn a new skill, such as digital photography or quilting. These activities require active engagement and tap into both working and long-term memory, as well as other high-level cognitive processes.

Others were encouraged to pursue more familiar pastimes in the comfort of their own homes. They were asked to listen to classical music and complete word puzzles, including crosswords.

And keen not to overlook the importance of social contact, the researchers assigned a third group of participants to engage in activities with social interactions, such as field trips and excursions.

Interestingly, participants in the study were very open to the idea of new experiences.

Park explains:

“Our participants essentially agreed to be assigned randomly to different lifestyles for 3 months so that we could compare how different social and learning environments affected the mind.”

“People built relationships and learned new skills – we hope these are gifts that keep on giving, and continue to be a source of engagement and stimulation even after they finished the study.”

And it seems that fortune really does favor the brave, as those who were the most mentally challenged showed the biggest improvements in recall and memory.

While acknowledging that all three learning groups were pushed to keep mastering more tasks and skills, only the groups “confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved.”

Park continues:

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.”

Park and her colleagues plan to continue the research with follow-up studies in 1 and 5 years to see if the effects remain over the long-term.

Medical News Today reported earlier this month that brain training may boost memory, which ties in with Park’s findings that completing less demanding activities, such as word puzzles, probably will not show noticeable benefits.

As Park so poetically says:

“When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”