Strong evidence: Cognitive engagement does improve memory

24 Nov

The idea that cognitive engagement might improve memory and prevent dementia has received wide attention. However, our knowledge has been limited by two factors. First, most of the research is correlational. It is definitely true that people who are more cognitively engaged have lower rates of dementia. However, correlational studies can not prove causation, so we could not be sure that becoming more cognitively engaged would reduce your risk of dementia.

The second problems is that the extant studies did not give us a good idea of how much cognitive engagement was needed to have an effect. There is reason to believe that the levels of cognitive engagement trumpeted to the public, such as doing a daily sudoku puzzle (one internet source suggests weekly sudoku), are not sufficiently demanding to have much of an effect.

Now, a study just published in Psychological Science clarifies the picture. This a rigorous experimental study with randomized control groups. Here is the abstract:

“In the research reported here, we tested the hypothesis that sustained engagement in learning new skills that activated working memory, episodic memory, and reasoning over a period of 3 months would enhance cognitive function in older adults. In three conditions with high cognitive demands, participants learned to quilt, learned digital photography, or engaged in both activities for an average of 16.51 hr a week for 3 months. Results at posttest indicated that episodic memory was enhanced in these productive-engagement conditions relative to receptive-engagement conditions, in which participants either engaged in nonintellectual activities with a social group or performed low-demand cognitive tasks with no social contact. The findings suggest that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances memory function in older adulthood, but, somewhat surprisingly, we found limited cognitive benefits of sustained engagement in social activities.”

Because this is an experimental study it provides that strong evidence that cognitive engagement really does improve memory function. Second, it shows us that, to be effective, cognitive engagement must be novel and demanding. This is why I recommend adults take up challenging learning projects, such as mastering a second language.

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