Your brain may be an organ, but it needs exercise to prevent atrophy—just like your muscles do! Knowing this, most folks will reach for brain teasers or puzzles in order to give their brain a little extra stimulation — things like Sudoku, Scrabble, crossword and word-find puzzles. Others might even utilize online “brain training” sites such as Lumosity.
While these popular brain games may help to slow down natural cognitive decline, new information is now coming to light which shows that learning a new and mentally challenging skill may prove to be even more effective when it comes to improving brain health and aiding against memory loss.
Here’s why: when you learn a new skill or form a new memory, one of two things happens: a new “trail” (called a neural pathway) may be created in your brain, or an existing pathway may be strengthened. This is called structural plasticity. Also known as neuroplasticity, this refers to the brain’s ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning.
In simple terms, these neural pathways are like highways in your brain on which your neurons travel, conveying information from one part of your body to your brain. For example, if you touch a hot pan, neurons travel from the nerves in your hand up your neural pathway to tell your brain “Hey, that’s hot!” Strengthening these pathways throughout your life helps your brain to resist damage later. (That’s called building up your cognitive reserve.) But don’t worry if you didn’t get an early start—researchers have also found that elderly adults who engage in mentally stimulating activities are less likely to develop dementia. It’s not too late to give your brain a good workout!
So if learning a difficult new skill is most effective in improving brain health, what should you learn? Studies have been published showing that learning a new language is beneficial—in fact, being bilingual can slow the onset of dementia by 4.5 years. If you aren’t particularly interested in learning Spanish or French, learning a programming language combines both the elements of learning a new language with the added benefit of learning new technology! You might not ordinarily get the opportunity to be creative on a daily basis, but programming allows you that chance, while also encouraging critical thinking.
Never Stop Learning
The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is both insulting and misleading—you can learn new skills—including programming—at any age. Of course, there may be a bit of a learning curve if you aren’t familiar with computers, but it’s not a hurdle that can’t be overcome. In fact, the long-term benefits of learning may be even greater if you aren’t familiar with computers to begin with! During a recent study, elderly participants who learned how to use Photoshop on a computer showed the greatest memory retention when tested a year later.
Don’t be upset or discouraged if this all seems hard at first—remember that the whole point is to really challenge your brain! Just work slowly, take breaks if you need to, be patient with yourself, and don’t give up!
(June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Awareness month. Take action at www.alz.org/june )