Learn a New Skill for Brain Health and Mental Fitness

The Cognitive Anti-Aging Effects of Learning a New Skill

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Learning a new skill challenges many parts of the brain. Not only does your brain have to understand, the instructions for the new skill but it also has to learn new motions, program new muscle memories and remember everything.

Learning New Skills and Brain Health Research

It has long been known that learning a new skill activates multiple areas of the brain and helps build new neural connections, which are vital to healthy brain function.

But according to recent research, it appears that learning a new skill can actually be anti-aging for the brain counteracting some of the negative effects of aging like memory loss.

In one study, older adults were divided into several groups. Of those groups assigned to learn a new skill, one group took up quilting and the other learned basic digital photography and photo editing software -- each for an average of 16 hours a week for three months. Rather than simply comparing the impact of these two groups' learning activities to a control group who did nothing at all, they compared them to a group who instead had fun engaging in less mentally challenging activities like socializing, watching movies, and playing simple games, which is also said to be good for brain health.

The results were somewhat surprising, with not all activities resulting in the same benefit to brain functions like working memory and episodic memory.

For instance, participants who learned a new skill presented more enhancement to episodic memory post-study than participants who engaged in a fun or social activity. That improvement in memory was also maintained even a year later, suggesting that there is long-term benefit to learning a new skill.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the greatest cognitive improvement was seen in the group that learned digital photography and photo editing, which the researchers theorized was due to the relative difficulty of the task.

How to Learn a New, Anti-Aging Skill

Though the research suggests that the more difficult the skill learned, the better the cognitive improvement and anti-aging effects, you don't have to start with something too challenging. It may be more important at first to find a new skill to learn that you will keep up with. Start small and with each success, challenge yourself more. To help you get started, here are 5 steps to follow when learning a new skill for brain health:

  1. Choose your new skill.

    Find something that captivates you, that you can do easily in your home, and doesn't cost too much. Photography with a digital camera, learning to draw, learning a musical instrument, learning new cooking styles, or writing are all great choices.

  2. Find a book or website that has a step-by-step program.

    The internet, library, and bookstore have resources that offer advice, as well as step-by-step instructions for the beginner. Just pick one of these and go through the book or website, working for about 30 minutes a day. You could also enroll in a class.

  1. Reserve 30 minutes each day.

    To really start to develop your new skills, it is more important that you practice it daily than practice for hours and hours once a week.

  2. Practice, practice, practice.

    It will take lots of practice before you get good at what you are trying. Remind yourself that you are doing this for brain exercise and enjoyment, not for any concrete result or product. It may be that your drawings will never be hung in a museum, but do you really care?

  3. Repeat. Keep learning.

    If you outgrow your book or new skill, find another. Learn everything you can about your skill. Read websites and talk to people or join a group. As an added bonus, a new skill can lead to new relationships.

For more ways to challenge your brain in the name of health (and fun), be sure to check out the Top 10 Ways To Improve Your Brain Fitness.


Park, D. C., J. Lodi-Smith, L. Drew, S. Haber, A. Hebrank, G. N. Bischof, and W. Aamodt. "The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project."Psychological Science25.1 (2013): 103-12.

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