Late-Life Learning: What Are the Brain Benefits?

A number of studies have shown an association between lifetime intellectual activity and cognitive decline. However, less is known about the impact of learning a new skill and engaging in cognitively demanding tasks later in life. Fortunately, a recent study from researchers at the University of Texas has shed some light on the benefit for older adults of sustained involvement in cognitively engaging activities late in life. The 221 participants in this study ranged from age 60 to 90, with an average age of 72.

This study compared six different conditions that varied in a number of important ways in order to tease out what factors had the greatest cognitive benefit. The first three conditions these researchers investigated were what they labeled productive cognitive engagement and required active learning. In the first of these, a group was trained in photography and using computer software to edit photographs. The second group was trained in quilting and using computer-driven sewing machines. The third productive engagement group split their time between quilting and photography.

Two other conditions were included to test whether aspects other than productive engagement in a newly learned intellectual activity could be providing some cognitive benefit. These two conditions were referred to as the receptive engagement conditions and did not involve learning new things or engaging in unfamiliar intellectual activities. One of these conditions was a social condition that aimed to mimic a social club, which involved activities such as cooking, playing games of chance, watching movies, and going on field trips. These activities relied as much as possible on the existing knowledge of participants. The fifth group was a placebo condition, in which participants were given a set of activities commonly thought to be cognitively engaging, but for which no empirical evidence exists that links them to cognitive improvement. For example, these participants were given documentaries to watch, informative magazines such as National Geographic to read, and crossword puzzles to perform, and could choose from a variety of similar activities from what the researchers labeled the “Brain Library.” In all of the above conditions, participants performed these tasks for 15 hours per week for 14 weeks. The sixth condition was a control group that engaged in no new social or intellectual activities. Before and after the 14 weeks of the study, participants were tested on their processing speed, mental control, episodic memory, and visuospatial processing.

When the researchers compared the participants in the productive engagement groups to those in the receptive engagement groups, they found that those in the productive engagement groups had significantly more improvement in episodic memory. Episodic memory describes our memory of past events (as opposed to remembering vocabulary or how to do something); other research has suggested that this type of memory is most impacted by aging. These groups did not differ for the other areas of cognition tested. Since prior research has shown associations between social activity and positive cognitive outcomes, they also compared the productive engagement group to just the social condition, and again found that the productive engagement group showed greater improvement in episodic memory.

The researchers then looked at the effect of each of the types of productive engagement, compared to the placebo condition. Here they found that the photography condition had the strongest effect on episodic memory. The dual condition also had a significant effect on episodic memory, although the size of the effect was about half of the photography condition. Unlike the photography condition, those participants in the dual condition also showed a significant improvement in processing speed. Participants in the quilting group did not show a significant improvement in the cognitive tests compared to placebo participants. The researchers suggest that the significant effect of the photography and dual conditions could be due to the photography tasks being “considerably more demanding of episodic memory” than the quilting tasks.

Finally, the researchers looked at what proportion of the participants in each condition showed notable improvement (defined as greater than one standard error of measurement) over the 14 weeks of the study. When looked at in this way, 76 percent of those in the photography condition, 57 percent of those in the dual group, and 60 percent of the quilt group showed notable improvement. For the receptive engagement conditions, 47 percent of the social condition and 46 percent of the placebo condition showed notable improvement.

The researchers have also recently announced some other exciting preliminary findings, which have not yet been published: they reported that those individuals engaged in quilting and photography also showed enhanced activity in areas of the brain associated with semantic and conceptual processing, as well as visual imagery. They also report that the enhancement in episodic memory described here was still demonstrated a year after these classes concluded.

For older adults looking to improve their memory, or aging services providers looking to promote brain fitness, these findings suggest that finding cognitively engaging activities that challenge participants can offer cognitive benefits. Furthermore, they suggest that memory improvement need not come from brain games or memory drills, but can also come from learning a challenging new skill.


Park DC, Lodi-Smith J, Drew L, et al. The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: the synapse project. Psychological Science (2014); 25(1) 103–112.

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