Put down the crossword, pick up the quilt

A June 11 post on the New York Times’ blog “The New Old Age: Caring and Coping” focuses on preventing memory loss, and Denise Park, who also wrote a December 2008 Cerebrum article, is quoted.

Park, director of the Productive Aging Laboratory and T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair in Clinical Brain Science at the University of Texas, points out in the blog post that quilting provides a mental workout. Learning to quilt is part of a National Institute on Aging trial in which researchers are trying to discern whether learning a new skill can preserve cognitive function. Neuroscientists think that doing so “may be even more effective than mental games at keeping the brain sharp,” the article notes.

photo courtesy of Denise Park

Park’s Cerebrum article goes deeper: She explains her “Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition,” which holds that a demanding task—quilting, for example, or continuing a mentally challenging job later in life—causes new circuitry to develop in the brain. Such “scaffolding” may compensate for areas of the brain that are becoming less efficient.

The Times blog makes other important points as well, such as the importance of physical exercise and a healthy diet and the unproven nature of supplements and software that claim to boost the brain.

In short: Beware fantastic claims. Keep that crossword puzzle around. But for staying mentally agile, learning something new may be your best bet.

—Dan Gordon

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