Just like the rest of our body, it’s important that as we age, we exercise our brain just as much as the rest of our body in order to preserve that feeling of youth. But how exactly should we exercise our brains? Some people may think that playing a crossword puzzle or listening to classical music will keep the mind sharp, but according to a new study, the trick is to learn new, unfamiliar skills.

Soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, the study found that learning new skills, such as quilting or digital photography, which require actual engagement of working memory, long-term memory, and other higher-level cognitive processes, proved to be most beneficial in maintaining cognitive function and memory in adults over 60 years old.

“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something — it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially,” Denise Park, lead researcher and psychological scientist at the University of Texas, said in a statement. “When you are inside of your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

For the study, researchers recruited 221 adults, ages 60 to 90, and split them into three different activity groups. The first group was given the task of learning digital photography, quilting, or both, while the second group was asked to do familiar activities such as crossword puzzles or listening to classical music at home. The third group, known as the social group, participated in social gatherings, field trips, and other forms of entertainment. Each group engaged in these activities for at least 15 hours a week over the course of three months. They found that participants in the unfamiliar-activity group gained the most cognitive benefit.

“The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough,” Park said in the statement. “The three learning groups were pushed very hard to keep learning more and mastering more tasks and skills. Only the groups that were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved.”

The population of older adults in the United States is expected to double in upcoming years. In 2009, there were 39.6 million adults, ages 65 and older, living in the U.S. By 2030, that number is expected to rise to 72.1 million, according to the Administration of Aging. After reaching 60 years old, a person’s risk for developing some form of dementia begins to rise. Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia, affects as many as 5.1 million American adults.

Park plans to follow-up with participants in a year, and five years, to see if the effects were long-term. “This is speculation, but what if challenging mental activity slows the rate at which the brain ages? Every year that you save could be an added year of high quality life and independence,” Park said.

If you’re over 60 years old and already stimulate your mind with learning unfamiliar skills, then here are three other things you can do to keep your memory sharp, according to the Mayo Clinic:

·         Eat a healthy diet: Heart health may translate to brain health as well. Eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Opt for low-fat protein sources, such as fish and skinless poultry. Cut down on alcohol consumption.

·         Be physically active: Increasing blood flow throughout the body means that blood is also getting to your brain. This could help brain function.

·         Be social: Being social can prevent depression and stress, which may contribute to memory loss.