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Oct 22, 2013 10:16 AM EDT

Learning Digital Photography Improves Memory in Older People, Study

Dr. Denise Park
(Photo : UT, Dallas) Dr. Denise Park

Older people can increase their brain power by engaging in mentally challenging skills, such as digital photography, according to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas, Dallas. Researchers said that when elderly people associate in less demanding activities, such as socializing or playing simple games, or get involved in things they already know, it does not help to improve their memories.

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"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. Denise Park, lead researcher, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity, and Distinguished University Chair at UT Dallas, said in an official statement. "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 arrived at the conclusion after comparing people who learned complex quilting skills and/or digital photography to people who participated in social clubs or performed passive, easy tasks like playing games of chance or listening to classical music.

"Only the quilting and photography groups, who were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge, improved their memory abilities," Park said.

Overall, 221 seniors, 60 to 90 years old, divided in six groups participated in the study.

The first group engaged in learning photography with digital cameras, how to use the equipment and the software to edit high-quality photos; the second group learnt to quilt with computer-controlled sewing machines and to create practical patterns, while the third group spent equal time learning photography and quilting.

The fourth and fifth group were associated with low-challenged and less intellectually demanding tasks, such as playing games, telling stories, going on field trips to museums, listening to music, watching videos or playing easy word games. The last group did not participate in any of the activities, however, they sat for before-and-after assessments.

The researchers found that groups that were involved in mentally challenging activities such as photography only or photography combined with quilting, displayed enhanced brain power. On the other hand, groups that participated in social relationships or in simple tasks at home did not show similar results.

"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," Park said. "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."

 "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," Park said.

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