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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Vital Signs: A Sharper Brain May Mean Leaving The Comfort Zone


In this week’s installment of Vital Signs, a new study challenging the idea of simply staying active and engaged to keep aging minds sharp. Researchers at U-T Dallas found activities like reading, socializing or word games aren’t enough. Learning new, mentally challenging skills produced more benefit.

Currently in Bethesda, Maryland for research, Dr. Denise Park, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity at U-T Dallas, spoke by phone with KERA’s Sam Baker about a three month study of more than 200 people ranging from 60 to 90 years old.

About the study:

One group spent 15 hours a week having fun and doing social things. Other groups spent the same amount of time learning new skills like quilting or digital photography from professional instructors and being challenged throughout.

The results:

The groups that were mentally challenged showed improve memory function at the end of three months. Dr. Park said the results suggest the “use it or lose it” approach isn’t enough to keep aging brains sharp and to ward off dementia. Activities that involve reasoning, novelty (new job, travel, moving to a new location, etc.) and/or stepping out of your comfort zone produce better results.

However, Park adds the results are not definitive or absolute, and more study on cognition lies ahead.

For more information:

U-T Dallas Study in Psychological Science

Links Between Exercise and Mental Fitness in Older Adults

Alzheimer’s Disease: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

What is Dementia?

Keeping Mentally Fit As You Age

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.