Learning doesn’t stop as soon as we’re out of school. Everyday is an opportunity to grow our knowledge bank if we pay attention. We’re surrounded by possibilities. But for those who commit to lifelong learning, they’ll not only be well-rounded but will enjoy the benefits of keeping their brains healthier and fit.
What happens to our brain when we’re learning?
When we learn a new skill, our brain processes the information and makes it possible to recall it later. The ability of learning how to solve one kind of problem makes it easier to solve others that are similar. In order to learn, we need to create and strengthen the neural pathways in our brain. By continuing to practice a new skill, these pathways are strengthened.
5 brain benefits of learning
When we learn new skills, the density of our myelin, or the brain’s white matter is increased. This in turn helps improve performance. Our neurons are also stimulated, forming more neural pathways which allow us to learn better.
One example that illustrates five benefits to the brain from learning involves what occurs when we learn a second language. Research that studied adults who undertook this task discovered these improvements to their brains:
- Improved brain function
- Better memory
- More mental flexibility
- Improved creativity
- Delay in the onset or symptoms of dementia
Can your brain improve as you grow older?
According to the Harvard Medical School’s publication Health Watch, your brain has the ability to learn and grow even as you get older. This is the process referred to as brain plasticity but it only works if you train your brain on a regular basis.
Some activities give you twice the advantages for the effort, such as swimming. While there are cardiovascular and muscle-building benefits, the physical act requires you to also think, process, develop a breathing rhythm and learn how to execute strokes and kicks. If you continue to practice these skills, you’ll see improvement in your endurance and speed.
Tips to maximize your brain training
Health Watch’s recommendation to keep your brain healthy is to choose a new skill that is challenging enough to force you to think and learn, and one that requires ongoing practice. Consider these guidelines when selecting an activity:
For your brain to grow, it must be challenged to learn something new that can also be improved. You can take something you already know but commit to becoming better at it. If you play a sport, set the bar higher to reach a certain level of expertise.
The activity needs to require skills such as problem solving or creative thinking. One study was of older adults aged 60 -90 who took up digital photography or quilting for 16 hours per week for three months. They scored better on long-term memory tests than those who did more familiar activities like reading or crossword puzzles.
The more repetition and time you put into learning a skill, the easier what you’ve learned will become permanent. You have to work at the skill to receive the benefits. Continue to challenge yourself and take the necessary steps to improve.
Does brain training always work?
The research continues but there have been some positive results. One study that looked at whether brain training could improve the mental abilities for those aged 65 and older found the subjects were better at the skill they had specifically targeted.
The study didn’t find evidence that these improvements necessarily helped people in their everyday lives, beyond the targeted practice.
Yet when the participants were re-evaluated 10 years later, at the average age of 82, the good news was that 60% reported they were doing as well or better with daily life activities. The majority hadn’t noticed any decline and had at least some improvement over those who didn’t train.
The connection between apps and brain games, however, may not necessarily be direct. Researchers recommend caution for advertisements that claim playing a certain game can stop you from developing dementia. Although most consider it beneficial to keep active both physically and mentally, the ability of a brain exercise to prevent Alzheimer’s isn’t yet clear.
Brain tips for you to try
The process that occurs in the brain is complex, but the actual activities you may choose to help keep your brain fit can still be fun. The key is to keep challenging yourself.
Consider trying a few of these and incorporating them into your daily fitness routine:
- Learn to play a new musical instrument
- Learn a second language
- Play word games and puzzles
- Learn to cook
- Take up a new hobby
- Learn a new sport
How senior living can help – discover life at a Northbridge community
We understand the importance of life-long learning for our residents and have created several opportunities for support. One of our Signature Programs - The S.T.A.R. Club (Sharp Thinking, Active Residents) - offers our residents several activities to participate in to keep their brains sharp, including the following:
- Daily exercise group
- Walking club
- Tai Chi & Yoga
- Nutritional classes
- Library and book club
- Museum outings
- Artists in Residence program
- Multi-generational music
- Genealogy Generations
If you’re considering senior living that will support lifelong learning and help you maintain both your physical and cognitive health, we hope you’ll consider one of our communities.
We’re here to answer any of your questions about our senior living communities. If your loved one is living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, we also invite you to download our complimentary guide, Just the Facts: Your Guide to Memory Care.