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Since ancient times, it has been assumed that adults will lose their cognitive abilities over time. Conventional wisdom holds that mental decline is a normal part of aging.

Recent research published in Aging & Mental Health challenges this assumption. It shows that cognitive decline can be prevented by lifestyle changes alone and that it can even be reversed with cognitive gains, even in later life.

Researchers designed an experiment in which they trained elderly participants simultaneously on three new skills for three months, and then tested their cognitive performance against baseline tests performed before the experiment started.

The trial involved 33 volunteers, which is not a large sample size. This would suggest that further research may be needed to replicate the results.

In two different intervention studies, the present study examined the long-term cognitive effects of learning three new skills in real life for three months. The linear mixed-effects model for Studies 1 and 2 showed that older adults’ cognitive abilities continued to improve even one year after the end of the interventions. Study 1 showed significant increases in composite cognitive scores, driven primarily by cognitive control. Verbal episodic memory scores (RAVLT), as well as cognitive control, also increased by 6 months. Study 2 participants showed improvement in all measures, except for Digit Span, across the three follow-up assessments compared to baseline assessments. These findings confirmed most of our hypotheses, and indicated that a multiskill learning intervention could induce cognitive improvements lasting for older adults.

Wu, [study author] said that the cognitive scores rose to levels comparable to undergraduates who took the same tests for the very first time. Our finding of continuous growth of cognition in older adults is unique, because most studies only show cognitive maintenance or decline with age.

Wu’s research follows other studies that suggest keeping your brain active in later life by learning new skills and engaging in intellectual pursuits can stave off neurodegeneration.

The most important thing is to get out of your comfort zone, which means learning a new skill or doing an activity that creates new neuronal connections.

Denise Park, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that it’s not enough to just get out there and do things. It is also important to do something unfamiliar and challenging mentally that stimulates you both mentally and socially. When you’re in your comfort zone, you might be out of the zone for enhancement.