Stepping outside one’s comfort zones is a key element contributing to keeping one’s memory sharp into old age, according to a new study by researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas, The research team found they learning mentally challenging skills, such as digital photography, helps improve memory in older people, while engaging in less mentally demanding activities, such as socializing or playing simple games, does not.
In an article published online in Psychological Science, Dr. Denise C. Park, lead researcher, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity, and Distinguished University Chair at UT Dallas, describes the Synapse Project. The project is testing how participation for several months in one of several learning or social environments might improve aspects of mental function.
The Park Aging Mind Laboratory at The University of Texas at Dallas. The Center for Vital Longevity, which was founded by Dr. Park, 8is dedicated to unlocking the secrets of the aging mind and the maintenance of cognitive health. Dr. Park focuses her research program on understanding how the mind changes and adapts as we age. She is interested not only in the function of the mind and brain, but in determining whether stimulation can maintain the health of the aging brain.
Under Dr. Park’s leadership, the Park lab’s scientists use advanced brain-imaging technology and research techniques in cognitive science with the objective of understanding, maintaining and improving the vitality of the aging mind. Evidence-based results from such studies ultimately could lead to new interventions to maintain mental vitality in an aging populace as huge baby boomer generation enters and dominates the senior demographic.
Dr. Park also leads the Synapse Project, which is systematically testing whether an engaged lifestyle can slow down the process of cognitive aging by facilitating the development of supportive neural scaffolds. The Synapse Project is designed to test the much debated theory that you can keep your mind healthy in old age by leading an engaged lifestyle – the so called “Use it or lose it” hypothesis.
The UT Dallas study is unique in that participants who enroll actually change their lifestyle to a more active, learning-based style and are immersed over a period of months in cognitive, physical, and social activities which Dr. Park and her colleagues believe will facilitate maintenance of a healthy mind and brain. The study is funded by an R01 award and a Challenge Grant from the National Institute on Aging to Dr. Park. Dr. Linda Drew directs and leads research on the study. Dr. Rong Zhang of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, along with Drs. Karen Rodrigue and Kristen Kennedy direct the exercise component. The project has been featured in the New York Times and Dr. Park was recently interviewed about this project on KERA Public Radio.
Dr. Park, PhD, who in addition to bein co-director of the Dallas Center for Vital Longevity, is also a University of Texas Regents Research Scholar, notes that “Our society today has a higher proportion of older adults than ever before. In order to remain vibrant and productive, it is critical that our citizens maintain cognitive health well into older age. The goal of my research is to use sophisticated brain-imaging technologies and other techniques to advance our understanding of the aging brain and Alzheimer’s disease and help aid the development of interventions to prevent or delay the cognitive frailty that too often comes with age.”
Dr. Park has dedicated her career studying how the mind ages, in particular making contributions to our understanding of how the operating speed and capacity of the human brain changes as we get older, how cultural experiences can shape brain activity, and how the aging brain might protect itself from structural degradation to maintain cognitive performance. She currently also directs the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study, which aims to identify a “neural signature” in middle-aged adults that will help predict who will and will not age well, as well as who might be at risk of Alzheimer’s disease long before symptoms appear.
“One of the key differences with our study from other interventions was that we didn’t ask people to participate in a specialized brain training program aimed solely at improving their mental abilities,” Dr. Park observes. “Rather, this was a major lifestyle change for our participants — they each committed to do activities we prescribed for 15 hours a week for three months – the activities were all fun, everyday things, but they varied in how mentally challenging they were.”
The researchers compared people who learned complex quilting skills and/or digital photography, to people who only participated in a social club or did passive, easy tasks alone, like playing games of chance or listening to classical music at home. “Only the quilting and photography groups, who were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge, improved their memory abilities,” Dr. Park notes.
Dr. Park and colleagues rented a storefront named the Synapse Center in Dallas to house the activities. A total of 221 seniors, 60 to 90 years old, participated in one of six groups in the experiment. One group learned photography with digital cameras – a task requiring very specific memories for verbal instruction and complex reasoning as they learned to use the equipment and the software to edit high quality photos. A second group learned to quilt with computer-controlled sewing machines, requiring the participants to think abstractly in order to create patterns, and to use reasoning skills to sew with the machines. An additional group divided its time between photography and quilting.
Two other groups participated in tasks that were low in cognitive demands. One was a social group that did things together that were fun but not intellectually demanding, such as playing games, telling stories, or going on fieldtrips to museums. Another group worked at home on low challenge tasks, like listening to music, watching videos or playing easy word games. A final group did not participate in any of the activities, but took the same before-and-after assessments.
Groups learning the most mentally challenging activities, photography or photography combined with quilting, showed significant gains in memory. Groups only participating in social relationships or working on simple tasks at home did not achieve the same effects.
“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something — it is important to get out and do something unfamiliar and mentally challenging,” explains Dr. Park. “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone. What if engaging in fun, but challenging mental activities could slow the rate at which your brain ages? Although we don’t know now if this is true, we will study our participants for years to see if the cognitive enhancement effects persist. Maybe through our own activities, we can add a year of high quality life and independence.”
She adds that further research in this area is becoming increasingly important as people live longer, noting that “As a society, we need to learn how to maintain a healthy mind – we know how to maintain vascular and heart health with diet and exercise, but we know so little about maintaining cognitive health.”
Other study authors include UT Dallas researchers Dr. Linda Drew, Dr. Sara Haber and Dr. Jennifer Lodi-Smith (now at Canisius College). Other UT Dallas researchers included Andrew Hebrank, Gérard Bischof and Whitley Aamodt.
Dr. Park has been continuously funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) for more than 25 years, and in 2006, was honored with a prestigious MERIT award. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Psychological Science and a recipient of the American Psychological Association’s award for Distinguished Contributions to the Psychology of Aging. She recently served on an international panel spearheaded by the NIA and the Alzheimer’s Association that issued new criteria for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and a new research agenda for studying the earliest stages of the disease, and she currently chairs the external scientific advisory board for the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; received the American Psychological Association’s award for Distinguished Contributions to the Psychology of Aging, and recently served on the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Society. She has an NIH Merit Award for her research and also directs an NIA Roybal Translational Research Center on Aging. She has chaired, in the past, the NIMH study section on the Mental Disorders of Aging and most recently chaired the NIH Cognition and Perception Study Section.
Denise Park earned her bachelor’s degree from Albion College in Michigan and her PhD in experimental psychology from the State University of New York at Albany. She moved to UT Dallas in 2008 after professorships at the University of Georgia, University of Michigan, and University of Illinois.
University of Texas at Dallas