The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: the Synapse Project

Psychol Sci. 2014 Jan;25(1):103-12. doi: 10.1177/0956797613499592. Epub 2013 Nov 8.


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.

Keywords: aging cognition; cognitive aging; cognitive reserve; cognitive training; engagement; episodic memory; intervention; working memory.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic
  • Middle Aged
  • Treatment Outcome