As the old saying goes, you cant teach an old dog new tricks. But as it turns out, learning new tricks may be the secret to keeping our old brains running smoothly. And were not talking about brain games and puzzles that are supposed to improve memory; were talking about learning a new skill or hobby, like playing an instrument, learning a language, mastering a new software program or even getting a degree.
Research has shown that challenging learning activities improve memory and overall cognition in older people, and that that improvement can be maintained over time.
Consider a study done by a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas a few years ago, in which 200 older people were given different activities to do. Some were tasked with forming social groups and reminiscing, and others stayed at home to watch movies or do simple games and puzzles, but others were asked to learn quilting and master a digital photography program. After three months, those who learned to use the digital photography program, by far the most challenging task, showed the most significant gains on memory tests. And they continued to show the most gains even when the tests were done again a year later.
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According to researchers, improvements in brain function happen because leaning a new skill involves activating many different parts of the brain at once, therefore strengthening its performance as a whole. Basically, when you step out of your comfort zone and embrace something that may at first feel confusing and overwhelming, your brain begins firing on all cylinders. As a result, there can be increased verbal capacity, and memory loss can be slowed down. Whats more, learning new things can widen a persons social circle, and the sense of accomplishment can renew a sense of purpose and inspire others.
Also, certain kinds of vocational education and training, like learning gardening or woodworking, can combine learning with exercise, which can be doubly beneficial to older people.
Now might be a good time to bust the myth that brain power declines with age. While many people think that some form of memory loss and dementia is simply part of aging, according to the National Institutes of Health, only 5 percent of people aged 71 to 79 have some form of dementia, and while that goes up to 24.2 percent between 80 and 89, the vast majority of older people maintain their brain functions. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School researchers, older people actually have better judgment, are better at making rational decisions and better able to screen out negativity and actually can work out math and reason problems faster than younger people.
That said, health problems, loss of a spouse, or loneliness and isolation can be the real enemy for older people, causing them to shut down intellectually not due to reduced cognitive ability, but because they might feel lonely and depressed.
Indeed, 82-year-old Jimmy Wilson, one of the people assigned to learning digital photography in the University of Texas study, told NPR that it would have been real easy to just become a total recluse after his wife died, but that he pushed himself to remain active, joining a church choir, keeping up on current events and organizing dinner dates with his family. By challenging himself, hes not only improved his brain health, hes improved his mental health.
Or maybe youve always wanted to learn another language. Penn State researchers found that anatomical changes in the brain that must occur when people successfully learn a new language, and which involves a strengthening of the brains network, can happen for people no matter what their age. Related research also has proved that older brains are capable of learning to play a musical instrument, and that learning to do so improves and maintains cognition. Same goes for the use of technology, like the internet, smart phones, and social media networks. What stands in the way isnt cognitive ability, as many assume, but fear and anxiety. Researchers have found that when older people take introductory courses in technology, or are mentored by someone who makes them feel comfortable, they learn just as easily as younger people.
Denise Park, the neuroscientist and lead researcher for the University of Texas study, says it perfectly in comments made to the Association for Psychological Science. It seems it is not enough just to get out and do somethingit is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.
David McNair handles publicity, marketing, media relations and social media efforts for the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.
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Generation Us: Learning new things helps keep brain sharp – The Daily Progress