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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Daily Dose

Secret to helping brain age well? Mental challenges

I recently took a painting class with friends during which I learned that my lack of brush-stroke skills compounded my dearth of innate visual talents. I’m the weakest link among my more artistic friends. And it has made me hesitant to take more classes. But I’m rethinking my decision after hearing about a study that found that those who challenge themselves by learning novel skills get the biggest memory boost as they age.

“Pushing yourself to learn a new skill is likely critical when it comes to maintaining brain function as we age,” said Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas. She bases that recommendation on a clinical trial she led involving 221 participants over age 60 who were randomly assigned to either learn digital photography or quilting for at least 15 hours a week, to socialize on group outings, or to play word games and watch informative documentaries.

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At the end of three months, she and her colleagues found that only those who took the photography or quilting classes made significant improvements on memory tests administered before and after the study, according to the results published last week in the journal Psychological Science.

Park recommends a challenge tailored for you. “A seamstress shouldn’t learn quilting,” Park said. Get out of your comfort zone and do something that doesn’t come naturally.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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