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Published on February 29, 2016

“Use it or lose it” is true for your brain“Use it or lose it” is true for your brain

If you love making quilts for family members or giving loved ones a photo you’ve taken, you’re doing more than passing along a great gift. You’re also giving yourself important mental exercise that could help keep your brain healthy.

People who took part in quilting and photography showed enhanced brain activity, according to a recent report in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

“The present findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that mentally challenging leisure activities can actually change brain function and that it is possible that such interventions can restore levels of brain activity to a more youth-like state,” senior author Denise C. Park, PhD, of the Center for Vital Longevity, School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, said in a press release about the study.

“This study is small but very interesting, and it makes us optimistic that we can strengthen parts of the brain that might become redundant,” Karen Lynch, MD, of Neurologists of Cape Cod, said. “Like muscles, you need to keep using the brain to keep it healthy. It’s a challenge we all face as the population ages.”

Because we lose neural connections with normal aging, it is important to keep mentally active as we age, she added.

“The technical aspects of the photography equipment and the creative process of figuring out the best scene can both be quite challenging. Learning a new skill or picking up a new musical instrument, something out of your normal realm, may help protect your brain,” she said.

Dr. Lynch was impressed by the improvement shown by the high-challenge participants in the study.

“When the groups were examined prior to the challenge, they were using many parts of their brain to process. But afterwards they were able to make more efficient use of the brain, like a younger brain would,” she said.

The best way to protect the brain, according to Dr. Lynch is through lifestyle habits that encompass multiple areas.

“The best strategy is to combine exercise, nutrition, socializing and cognitive challenges,” she said

In the University of Texas study, Park and lead author Ian McDonough compared changes in brain activity in 39 older adults, using cognitive tests and brain scans. The patients were split into three groups: high-challenge, low-challenge and placebo. The high-challenge group learned difficult skills in quilting and digital photography. The low-challenge group gathered for social activities. The placebo group listened to music or watched classic movies. Participants were tested before and after the 14-week study period.

The high-challenge group demonstrated better memory performance after the intervention, according to the press release.

“The findings superficially confirm the familiar adage regarding cognitive aging of ‘Use it or lose it,’” said McDonough, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama.