Older adults who learn a new, mentally demanding skill can improve their cognitive function, according to research done at the University of Texas at Dallas and recently reported in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.
In this study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- A high-challenge group that spent time learning progressively more difficult skills in activities like digital photography and quilting that required new learning and sustained mental effort
- A low-challenge group that spent time socializing and engaging in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking with no active learning component
- A placebo group that engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies
At the end of 14 weeks, the researchers found that the adults in the high-challenge group, who were engaged in learning new skills, demonstrated improved memory and an increased efficiency in their brain activity, similar to that typically seen in young adults. These improvements were not found in the low-challenge or placebo groups.
These findings show that mentally-challenging activities can actually be neuroprotective and an important element for maintaining a healthy brain as you age. This study confirms what I have been teaching my patients for years – the more you use your brain, the more you can continue using it.
New learning creates new connections in the brain, but the absence of learning causes the brain to start disconnecting itself. No matter what your age, mental exercise has a global, positive effect on the brain. Learning has a very real effect on neurons: it keeps them firing and it makes it easier for them to fire.
There are approximately a thousand trillion synapses in the brain, and each one of them may wither and die if not actively firing. Like muscles that don’t get used, idle nerve cells waste away. In other words, mental exercise is as important to your brain as diet and physical exercise are.
The best mental exercise is acquiring new knowledge and doing things that you have not done before. Even if your routine activities are fairly complicated, such as teaching a college course, reading brain scans, or fixing a crashed computer network, they won’t help your brain specifically because they aren’t new.
Whenever the brain does something over and over, it learns how to do it using less and less energy. New learning, such as learning a new medical technique, a new hobby, or a new game helps establish new connections, thus maintaining and improving the function of other less often used brain areas.
Likewise, just doing crossword puzzles or sudoku is not going to give you the full benefit you want. Just doing crossword puzzles is like going to the gym, doing right bicep curls, and then leaving. Here are some ideas for exercising various parts of the brain:
- Word games can stimulate the left front language part of the brain.
- Laughter stimulates the right side and can boost creativity.
- Learning a musical instrument can boost your temporal lobes and help with memory.
- Learning new dance steps and playing table tennis can strengthen your cerebellum, at the back bottom part of your brain and help you with processing speed.
You really CAN make your brain better, but you need a very specific program to do so. You can learn more in my newly released book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life, Revised and Expanded.