At the age of 78, Bob Branham, a retired computer software developer in Dallas, Tex., took up quilting. It wasn’t his idea, actually. He’d never dreamed of piecing together his own Amish diamond coverlet or rummaging around Jo-Ann Fabrics in search of calico prints. But then he enrolled in a trial sponsored by the National Institute on Aging to assess whether learning a new skill can help preserve cognitive function in old age. By random assignment, he landed in the quilting group.
When it comes to mental agility, we’re more likely to think of crosswords than cross-stitch. But neuroscientists suspect that learning a challenging new skill — a new language, a new musical instrument — may be even more effective than mental games at keeping the brain sharp. And quilting is more complicated than it may seem.
“It’s a very abstract task,” said Dr. Denise Park, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, who is leading the trial. “You have to picture what the pattern will look like, match fabrics, manipulate geometric forms, mentally rotate objects.”
In Mr. Branham’s case, he also had to learn to use a sewing machine. And while it’s too early to tell if quilting is sharpening his mind, he quickly found that he loved his new pastime. He spends as much as 40 hours a week piecing and stitching, both at home and at the social center that Dr. Park set up for the trial.
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