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Brainy tasks keep seniors mentally fit

U. ILLINOIS (US) — Senior adults should find challenging activities that are not too difficult or too easy. Doing so can result in cognitive benefits, according to new research.

The findings, reported in Psychology and Aging, show that when older adults with a higher capacity to quickly detect patterns and manipulate and transform information (known as fluid ability) engage in challenging activities, they derive a sense of flow—a state in which a person is so immersed in the demands of the task they lose awareness of time.

“Because higher ability makes more intellectually challenging activities pleasurable, there may be a self-perpetuating cycle: the more one challenges oneself at the limit of one’s ability, the better it feels and the more likely one is to build mental exercise into everyday life, which further enhances cognitive capacity,” says Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois.

“Fluid ability is an important resource as one grows older because it is correlated with memory and problem-solving that enables one to cope with real-world demands of everyday life.”

Understanding the nature of flow in older adults can provide new insights into the cognitive aging process and the motivational processes for different forms of engagement.

Seniors who “are generally resource-rich have the capacity to be more absorbed by activities of higher cognitive demand as opposed to resource-poor individuals, who are more absorbed with activities of lower cognitive demand. To the extent that the flow state engenders persistence in an activity, this suggests that experiential states may contribute to the degree to which we gain from that activity,” the researchers say.

The discovery about experiential engagement in a challenging task helps to lay the groundwork for further research into flow and cognitive aging in older adults.

“While the flow construct has been explored in various fields, neither the nature of flow in older adults nor its role in cognitive aging has been examined. This is surprising, given the role of flow in subjective well-being and the increased interest in the relationship between well-being and healthy aging.”

The work shows the importance for older adults to be intellectually engaged, Stine-Morrow says.

“Current theories of motivation in aging primarily focus on social and emotional aspects, which are of course, important, but our findings suggest that older adults can also derive satisfaction from intellectual pursuits, in much the same way as they did when they were younger.”

Activities that can be described as cognitively demanding include tasks such as reading or taking a class, while low demand activities include watching TV. But, “a full account of such enrichment effects will ultimately depend on understanding motivational states (such as flow) that may serve a self-regulatory function in engendering such choices in engagement,” the authors write.

In order to fully understand the enrichment effects of engagement, it is necessary to understand “motivational states (such as flow) that may serve a self-regulatory function in engendering such choices in engagement.”

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