Secret to helping brain age well? Painting and other mental challenges

Learning to paint with two friends and two instructors at a Maryland art gallery.
Learning to paint with two friends and two instructors at a Maryland art gallery.
Boots Harris

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. Clearly, I’m the weakest link among my more artistic friends, which has made me hesitant to take more classes.

But I’m rethinking my decision after hearing about a new study, which found that those who truly challenge themselves by learning novel skills get the biggest memory boost as they age. In other words, the instructors who painted such wonderful copies of a Van Gogh still-life likely weren’t working out their brains as hard as I was because painting—with all their practice and training—comes easy for them.

“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 this week in the journal Psychological Science.

“I was kind of surprised that those attending social functions didn’t see much change in their memory skills,” Park said, “because there’s a moderate mental challenge” in making conversation with strangers. She thinks a larger study, however, might have detected a modest memory boost from socializing, which has been seen in other research.

One possibility is that learning new skills improves our attention and makes it easier to learn and recall a string of words on a memory test. Alternatively, such skills help develop new nerve connections in brain regions, including the hippocampus, that are responsible for helping us store and recall information.

For now, she suggested the following:

1. Do a challenge that’s mentally 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. Take tennis lessons if you’re a chess player. Learn a foreign language if you’re a science wiz. Or like me, paint, if you’ve already had 12 years of piano training.

2. Plan a trip to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. “Don’t take a tour; just wander around on your own,” suggested Park. Getting a little lost or learning to navigate a new transportation system can be great exercise for the brain—and fun and a little scary at the same time.

3. Change up your job or place of residence. Taking on new responsibilities at work or making a career change presents the kind of challenges that are good for the brain. Moving to a new state can also force you to learn a new set of navigational skills. Not doable or desired? Take short weekend trips to towns you’ve never been to and turn off your GPS once you get there. Challenge yourself to find a supermarket, gas station, and dry cleaner on your own.

Park has also conducted brain imaging studies to determine how memory skills are enhanced by mental challenges, but those results haven’t been published yet.

Longer-term studies would be useful to see just how much of our memory we can retain as we age—if we do keep learning new skills—since some age-related memory loss appears to be a given, even in those who don’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

“Just like we learned how to keep heart healthy, we’re now only just beginning to learn how to keep your mind healthy,” Park said.