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  • Patricia Faust

Does Learning Give You a Bigger and Better Brain?


Actually, it does! We live down the street from an elementary school. I was driving by at lunch time and the kids were out playing at recess. My thoughts went to how their brains are sponges just soaking in knowledge. It amazes me to watch my granddaughter learn things so quickly and know that there was a time I could do that also. Since I have been in the brain health business for a while I learned that although I wouldn’t pick up information and remember it as easily anymore, my brain loves that challenge and will grow new brain cells and synaptic connections in response. Learning is a great thing through our entire life and we benefit from the experience. Let me explain how mental stimulation benefits the brain.


Novel and Complex Environment

The brain reacts favorably to novel and complex environments. Work, kids, sports, activities, hobbies, friends, vacations all make up your personal environment. If your status in these relationships becomes static the brain goes on automatic and doesn’t respond with new cell growth or connections. Getting your brain to work at a new experience provides the stimulation it needs to function well. As you age, many of the challenges you faced and worked through have been resolved and take the brain out of the active mode. The changes are not apparent for a while but you decline cognitively. Aging itself causes the brain to lose volume from cell death. With no novel and complex environment to keep you on your toes, as well as aging to contend with, your brain shrinks in volume.


Mental Stimulation/Cognitive Reserve

Mental stimulation is a critical component for maintaining a healthy brain. Our brains are made to be used. If they are not adequately challenged, the pruning begins – Use It or Lose It! The brain is very good at sloughing off unused cells and connections. If you don’t recall an old memory for awhile – that goes too. However, if you challenge your brain it will respond accordingly by growing new cells and connections. The optimal healthy brain has an abundance of cognitive/brain reserve. This is all of the cells acquired from stimulating your brain. Cognitive/brain reserve protects your brain from neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact Sharpbrains define cognitive reserve as “the ability of an individual to tolerate progressive brain pathology including Alzheimer’s disease plaques and tangles without demonstrating chemical cognitive symptoms.” This is a huge statement. When you participate in novel and challenging exercises – you learn. And, when you learn new facts or new ways of doing things, neurons and synaptic connections in your brain change. This is neuroplasticity – the ability of your brain to adapt and change. More connections become more cognitive reserve and you have a healthier, more resilient brain.


Mental Challenges Promote Neuroplasticity

What kind of exercises can you do to promote neuroplasticity? There are the life-long learning programs that are available. Universities have programs such as the Institute for Learning in Retirement. You don’t have to be retired to take advantage of these classes. And, ILR classes offer topics that might be of interest to you – cooking, art, history, writing, memory strategies, wine, computer, technology and many more life-based classes. You can also get out of your comfort zone by trying new experiences. Take for example, a trip to a local museum to see an exhibit. Take a tour through the exhibit and then come home and try to recreate the experience. Your brain works hard on memory, focus, recall and that is challenging. Learn a musical instrument: learning to read music is like learning a second language. Playing an instrument helps with fine muscle movement. Those are great challenges for your brain. Of course there are the online gaming programs that target certain functions of your brain. I use one every morning and it has helped my brain function. I have found though that if you stop doing the programs that your slide backward can be quick. Again it comes back to the use it or lose it principle. As much as the brain fitness developers want you to believe that these programs will solve all of your brain health problems, you have to remember that mental stimulation is one part of a brain health lifestyle and your brain needs the other parts (Physical Activity, Socialization, Nutrition, Stress Reduction, Sleep) to sustain a healthy brain.


Guidelines for Mental Exercises

Here are a few guidelines for developing your own mental exercises:

· Variety – excessive specialization is not the best strategy for long-term brain health;

o You need to stimulate multiple functions of the brain

o Create a neural circuit – similar to an exercise circuit

· Challenge – the goal is to be exposed to increased levels of challenge, so that a task never becomes too easy or routine

· Novelty – trying new things is important since critical parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (executive function, high level decision making), are mostly exercised when we learn to master new cognitive challenges

(Sharpbrains, May 2009)


No matter what your circumstances are, you are always the right age to learn something new. Your brain will help you feel even younger! Remember Use It or Lose It – you definitely want to be on the winning part of that equation.


References:

Posit Science. (2015). Brain activities. Retrieved January, 2015 from http://www.brainhq.com.

Sharpbrains. (May, 2009). Mental stimulation: building a brain/ cognitive reserve with novelty and challenge. Retrieved July 31, 2015 from http://sharpbrains.com.


Tags: mental stimulation, brain health, neuroplasticity, novel and complex

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