As I move into middle age and look at my parents who are now considered elderly (not in their minds of course!), I am always looking at ways to improve how my brain functions as I get older.
It's a fact of life that age leads to some cognitive decline, including slower processing speed, weaker memory, and weaker logic and reasoning skills. But fortunately, it is also proven that this decline can be minimized because of the amazing plasticity of our brain.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading scientist in the field of neuroplasticity, has done extensive research on brain plasticity and that our ability to change the brain is possible from birth to death, even when we are elderly.
What he has found is that our brain can grow when learning new skills with intensity challenges it.
If you think about being a child, you were learning something new nearly every day from how to tie your shoe, to the meaning of a word, to why touching a cigarette lighter is a bad idea. Even as a young adult, you were constantly learning about how to balance a checkbook, the ins and outs of your new job, how to diaper a baby, and how to file your taxes. But as we age, we do less of learning brand new things, and instead do more of repeating tasks and skills we have already acquired.
This is one reason why many people often lose cognitive function as they age: their brain hasn’t actually grown in decades. Yes we use our brain all the time, but when was the last time you actually learned something new with great intensity?
Dr. Merzenich is a great proponent of learning a language in old age because in just forcing your brain to be challenged and learn a new skill, all of your cognitive skills will become stronger. Too often we write off learning new things as we age as being too hard, but that difficulty is really what will keep us young.
Again, learning something new is the key to building up the strength of your brain as you age. One tip that is often thrown into "Top Ten" lists and articles about keeping your brain sharp is: Do more crossword puzzles.
However, while doing crosswords, completing riddles, and putting together puzzles does use our brain, it can't change it. Just like lifting a glass to my mouth uses my biceps, but I am not building biceps with that motion. There is a difference between using a muscle and changing a muscle. A crossword puzzle isn’t forcing your brain to learn anything new or build new connections, so it can’t make your brain stronger.
Yes, it would be great if all we had to do to make ourselves smarter, make our brain stronger, and keep our cognitive reserve longer, was complete crossword puzzles — but that won't work. The neurons in your brain actually have to grow, and be challenged, and make connections to other neurons.
Real cognitive training takes work and time and intensity.
There are many programs out there now for people of all ages to train their brain and improve their cognitive skills. Last month, I found a great video on WebMD about a study put on by the University of Southern California testing a computerized brain fitness program.
Or, if you want more of a personalized approach that isn’t computer based, LearningRx works with adults and seniors to improve their cognitive skills and challenge the brain with new activities and brain games.
Whatever path you choose — learning a new language, taking up a dance you’ve never tried, learning to play the harp, or brain training, make sure that as you age you don’t let your brain go decades without learning and growing.
Your future self will thank you!
Sources: Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.