NEW ORLEANS — Encouraging older patients to learn new skills and try new physical activities can maintain and promote cognitive function as they age, according to a poster presentation at the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) 2015 meeting.

Sue Polito, MSN, APN-C, an adult and gerontology nurse practitioner at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey, reviewed the literature to find that older persons who participated in stimulating mental and physical exercise remain more engaged in the social activities of daily living, are less likely to be depressed, and have a slower decline in cognitive function than individuals who do not engage in these activities. 

 She also found that people who remain active as they age may potentially improve cognitive skills in executive function, attention, behavior, and spatial relationships. More time spent participating in activities was correlated with greater cognitive benefit.

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Retirement may be a point to consider encouraging adults who have been active working people during their lives to stay physically and mentally active. “You want to keep them healthy, but in terms of maintaining their cognitive function, the literature talks about learning new activities,” Polito said. 

“More recently, we’re seeing literature about what we can do to actually stimulate the neurons in the brain to keep older adults healthy and keep the synapses connecting.” In her presentation, she noted that research has shown that learning new skills is accompanied by neuroplastic changes in white matter in the brain regions that support executive functions, such as working memory.

Polito suggests that primary care providers encourage their older patients to engage in activities that stretch them out of their comfort zone, such as quilting, learning how to use a computer, or taking a class at the local senior center or community college.

“As people age, there may be a natural decline in cognitive function,” Polito said. “Learning new activities, however, helps to promote cognitive function and can extend the period of functional activity as the patient ages.”


  1. Polito S. “Don’t let your neurons turn to morons: Activities to promote and maintain cognitive health in older adults.” Presented at: AANP 2015. June 9-14, 2015. New Orleans.