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The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project

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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.
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... In addition to not yielding effective treatments, none of the various biological processes that have been the primary area of focus of our investigational and explanatory efforts have been adequately shown to be either necessary or sufficient to fully explain the risk and progression of AD [5,6]. On the other hand, a growing body of evidence indicates that lifestyle and environment represent the ultimate level of causation for AD and age-related cognitive decline (ARCD) and that, specifically, the decline in cognitive demands over the lifespan plays a central role in driving the structural and functional deteriorations of these entities [10][11][12][13][14][15]. ...
... Furthermore, the existence of pathological structural and functional deteriorations in the setting of reduced physiologic stressors (bedrest, immobilization) are best explained not by an excess of injury from exogenous sources or from an inadequate supply of substrates required to support basal tissue maintenance, but rather by a pronounced downregulation of the repair and recovery mechanisms necessary to do so. In sum, it is clear that the health and function of these tissues is directly regulated by the demands placed upon them, a phenomenon we will refer to as demand coupling [13][14][15]. ...
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... These features might also allow for engagement in activities that are more meaningful for participants thereby sustaining high levels of interest and involvement with the programme. This could contribute to the anticipation, positive mood, and happiness described by participants, as enhanced agency and sustained engagement in arts activities have been linked to improved mental well-being amongst older adults (e.g., Park et al., 2014;Williams et al., 2020. Overall it seems that the wide variety of activities helped people to stimulate different types of creative engagement. ...
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