Brain-Building Hobbies to Improve Cognitive Function

Discover the link between activities such as reading, knitting or making music and mental health.

| July/August 2016

Most of us lead busy lives—between work, housekeeping, making meals, gardening, family activities and volunteering, our schedules get pretty packed. Yet we all find time for leisure activities. On an average day, nearly everyone age 15 and older engages in some sort of leisure activity, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), defined as watching TV, socializing, using computers for leisure, playing games, reading or exercising. Men spend a bit more time on leisure activities at about six hours daily, while women spend just over five hours a day on leisure activities. Those age 75 and older enjoy the most leisure time at eight hours a day, but even the busiest age group—35 to 44 year olds—makes time for just over four hours of leisure daily.

So how do we make use of this precious free time? Well, television watching is the No. 1 leisure activity, occupying nearly three hours a day on average, more than half of leisure time. Socializing, the next most common activity, accounts for about 38 minutes a day, while reading got an hour per day by those older than 75 and just eight minutes per day for those aged 15 to 19.

What barely registers throughout these statistics is time spent on the many hobbies that are scientifically proven to help improve the health and function of our brains. While we all need some “veg” time to sit back, turn off our brains and enjoy being entertained, we could do ourselves a big favor if we spent a few of our free hours engaged in one of the activities that follow.

Make Music

Emerging studies are discovering how making music—both playing an instrument and singing in a choral group (but not just listening to music)—can benefit our brains in multiple ways. In one 2003 study, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug found that “the brains of adult professional musicians had a larger volume of gray matter than the brains of nonmusicians had” and that 15 months of early-childhood musical training led to structural brain changes associated with motor and auditory improvements, reports National Geographic. In research conducted by Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, scientists found direct evidence that musical training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems, remodeling the brain in a way that improves sound processing. This is significant because “children from families of lower socioeconomic status process sound less efficiently, in part because of noisier environments and also due to linguistic deprivation—or not hearing enough complex words, sentences and concepts,” writes Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. “This puts them at increased risk of academic failure or dropping out of school.”

What’s more, it appears the more years we play an instrument, the more benefits we gain—even if we later stop playing. In a 2011 study reported in National Geographic, people who spent at least 10 years playing an instrument scored highest—compared to those with no musical training, who scored lowest, and those who’d played for one to nine years, who scored in the middle—on a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests, including nonverbal and visuospatial memory, naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information. Intriguingly, the musicians didn’t lose all of these benefits even if they hadn’t played in decades. To gain the greatest benefits, research suggests it’s best to begin musical training within the crucial developmental period before age 9; however, even older people gain brain power from taking up an instrument. “Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, studied the impact of individual piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85,” writes Diane Cole for National Geographic. “After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.” 

Learn a Language

Learning a second language is another activity that bolsters our brain health and cognitive performance, regardless of when we learn it and—good news for some of us!—regardless of how fluently we can speak the language (simply attempting to learn the basics confers positive effects).

6/13/2016 10:47:11 AM

We very much like your post and couldn't agree with your more. We wrote about Retirement and Foreign Language Learning as well as our own experience of learning Italian already a few years ago. Combining language learning with easy interactive games, we believe, is especially for seniors a great way to enjoy learning a new language!

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