Study says picking up a new hobby may save your brain later in life

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Humans are creatures of habit. We all love our routines; they provide a comforting sense of stability. There’s nothing wrong with a tried and true morning ritual, but a new study is stressing the importance of trying new activities on a consistent basis, especially as we enter our 30s and beyond.

Spicing up one’s life with a variety of hobbies and different ventures will help maintain a sharp mind and clear cognitive functioning into old age, according to researchers at the University of South Florida. 

These findings will probably represent a conundrum for many readers. During adolescence and young adulthood, we all tend to have a bit more time to try a new sport or pick up an instrument. But, as careers unfold and many start families of their own, the day fills up quickly. Between our daily responsibilities at both home and work, it can feel impossible to find time for new things. 

Still, just a few minutes each day exploring a new topic or interest may make all the difference when it comes to maintaining a sound mind during our golden years.

The study’s authors investigated seven distinct possible daily activities: time spent on the job (paid work), time spent with children, daily chores, leisure activities, physical activity, volunteering, and providing informal help. In all, data on 732 individuals between the ages of 34 and 84 were used for this research. 

For a period of eight consecutive days, each person was asked if they engaged in any of the aforementioned activity categories. Then, their responses were graded with each participant receiving a diversity score. This score was intended to represent that person’s variety and consistency of activity engagement. A full 10 years later, the same group of participants was given that survey once again regarding their daily routines and ventures.

Meanwhile, each participant’s mental sharpness was assessed using an advanced cognition test designed to measure a variety of cognitive dimensions. This assessment quizzed participants on their working memory, attention span, verbal fluency, speed of processing, verbal memory, and overall reasoning skills. 

After analyzing and comparing the participants’ responses over time, researchers discovered that the people who consistently tried more new activities over the course of the decade were in much better mental shape than those who stayed stuck in the same daily routine or were engaging in even fewer activities 10 years later.

More specifically, those who had chosen to diversify their hobbies and lives displayed significantly higher levels of cognitive functioning.

While this isn’t the first study to find that keeping life fresh helps our minds stay strong, it is the first piece of research to prove that it’s also important to remain consistent in those new activities, regardless of the age on one’s driver’s license. Essentially, attending one yoga class and then giving up isn’t really going to benefit your mind all that much.

“Results support the adage to ‘use it or lose it’ and may inform future interventions targeting the promotion of active lifestyles to include a wide variety of activities for their participants,” comments Soomi Lee, PhD, assistant professor in the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, in a press release. “Findings suggest that active and engaged lifestyles with diverse and regular activities are essential for our cognitive health.”

Diving into the studies findings a bit deeper, maintaining an educational mindset and learning new things in adulthood can help offset the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Finding a leisure activity or hobby that one is passionate about was found to have the same effect on Alzheimer’s as well. On the other hand, researchers noted a clear connection between “passive behavior” (largely sedentary activities like watching TV) and cognitive decline.

However, it’s worth mentioning that even the most active and consistent participants still saw their episodic memory decline with age. It seems there are some facts of growing old that are unavoidable. 

The unknown can be intimidating. We’ve all felt inclined to stick to what we know at one time or another, but most can attest that once they’ve taken the plunge and tried something new, they were happy they left their comfort zone. Now, this study is providing just one more reason you should find time for that activity you always wanted to try or skill you always wanted to learn.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.