That one should be mentally active to keep the brain sharp is well-known. What activities are best to reach that purpose is not as clear. Lifelong reading, writing, playing board games, and attending classes are generally thought to be good brain stimulating activities but very few studies have looked at other activities or tried to compare them. Until now, at The Synapse Center.
This Huffington Post article details the on-going studies going on at The Synapse Center, a senior activity center acting as a cognitive aging lab for a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas. So far the team has compared the beneficial effects of two activities on cognition:
They chose to examine quilting and digital photography, which club members, age 60 to 90, studied intensely — 15 hours a week — for three months. These two hobbies both involved continuous learning of novel and increasingly complex material.
There were 6 groups in the study: a quilting group, a digital photography group, a group that divided their time between the 2 activities, a group that participated in social activities at the Center, another group that stayed home and worked on puzzles, listened to music, etc. (so-called stimulating activities), and a last, a control group, that did nothing out of the ordinary. The scientists took a variety of cognitive measures before and after the classes began.
The 3 main results of that study were:
- productive engagement in either or both activities — photography and quilting — led to a significant gain in memory, compared to more passive lifestyles.
- digital photography had far more beneficial effects on cognition, especially memory [...] it could be because this class exercised memory much more intensely
- socialization was not nearly as beneficial as anticipated — or as it’s widely believed to be
One main take-home from that study is that a leisure activity will have an impact on cognition when it is challenging enough, that is when it requires effortful learning. This leads to another important fact: an activity that is challenging for me may not be challenging for you. So there is no magical answer to the question of what activity is best for the brain. It will depend on what one is used to and already good at.