One of the biggest secrets to continued brain health and healthy longevity is to be a lifelong learner. You don’t have to read dusty textbooks and listen to dull lectures to keep learning.
What Happens to Your Brain When You Learn Something New
Studies have shown that adults who continually learn new skills are less likely to develop the early signs of dementia. Not only is your brain protected by lifelong learning but your rate of depression and anxiety decreases when you remain actively engaged in learning.
Improve Brain Function
Learning is not only for the young. A rich environment of mental stimulation leads to an increase in cognitive function as you grow older. Doesn’t that sound ideal?
It is common for there to be a loss of connective synapses (how your brain passes messages along) in the frontal lobe of the brain as you age. But the hippocampus (where we make new memories) continues to build new neurons throughout your whole life. That’s right, your brain is still growing!
Learning new skills can help you stay independent longer and reduce stress. When you know how to order your groceries and pay your bills online you aren’t worrying what you will do when you can’t go out when the weather is bad.
Continual worry and stress will damage your brain. Researchers at UC Berkeley have shown that chronic levels of stress can lead to a decrease in your ability to learn as well as your memory.
Instead of worrying about what you will do, take action. Learn a new skill that will help you cope as you age. Doing this will relax your stress levels and lead to an improved chance of healthy longevity.
Keep Yourself Connected
Learning keeps you connected with those around you. Your social life has a direct impact on the length of your life. Studies show that when you are more active socially you outlive those who are isolated.
The benefits of learning become more important as you age, when it is harder to go out and you are dealing with the loss of loved ones. When you are learning something new it can give you a purpose. A reason to get out of bed. A place to connect with old and new friends.
Humans are creatures of connection. You need to be connected to those around you. This concept of connection reaches across the generations. When you are learning how to use your iPad it might be so you can chat with your granddaughter across the country. A language class will introduce you to those 20 years younger or even older than you, forming relationships and having new conversations. These actions keep our brain cells alive and help us to grow new ones.
Staying Engaged while Promoting Brain Health
There is a fine line between routine and boredom. While living through stressful times, a routine can help us to stay focused and keep moving forward. This scheduled predictability helps us cope.
Eventually these routines can stagnate, and we become stuck. Day after day you do the same things and life seems bland.
Your brain craves novelty. When you can see something bright in your future, you feel excitement. Your brain is able to challenge those pessimistic thoughts and replace them with a feeling of anticipation.
One of the keys to a healthy brain is to continue to challenge and stretch your abilities. This means it is important to always try new things.
Staying active is one of the best ways to slow down or even reverse mental decline. A village in Bapan, China has recently been coined the “longevity village” due to the high number of its population who live to over a 100 years old. The villagers have three common characteristics: they age slowly, work hard tending their own gardens and farms, sometimes into their 90s and 100s, and have an absence of dementia.
Dr. John Day, the head researcher of this report, states that one of the secrets to their healthy longevity is that almost every waking moment of their lives is spent in motion. Not only did they spend time working, but they also spent time adding play into many of their daily activities. Singing in the fields. Laughing and smiling.
Although exercise has commonly been known to improve brain health, a research study by Dr Kathrin Rehfeld showed that dancing has the biggest impact on reversing aging.
The participants in the research study were an average age of 68. Those that joined in an 18-month weekly dance class instead of cycling or walking showed both an increase in the memory function of the brain as well as a profound difference in balance. Dr Rehfeld concludes that “dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.”
If you are regularly exercising, give yourself a pat on the back. Moving your body helps with the blood flow to your brain and aids in flushing toxins out of your system.
What are ways you can challenge yourself in your exercise routine?
The coordination that is required to learn a new set of movements benefits your brain health. Think about what types of exercise you typically do and how you can change it a little or a lot.
If you have enjoyed walking in the past, you could try adding yoga to your day. This uses a whole different set of muscles, and yoga’s health benefits for seniors would surprise you.
If you have never tried dancing, this is the ideal time to learn. You don’t even need to leave your house. Turn on an old movie or find a YouTube video and mimic the dance moves from the comfort of your living room. It’s okay to start small. You could sit in a comfy chair and work on following the hand and arm motions first. Then switch it up and follow along with the legwork.
Challenge your brain to try each of these types of dance, you might find a new favorite!
- Hip Hop
If the area you live in is encouraging people to continue getting outdoors, take advantage of this. Exploring new outdoor places is a great way to refresh your mind while staying active.
You can usually find a list of parks, trails and pathways through your city or community website. Print off a list of all the local outdoor places to walk in your area. You can try to check off a new place each week.
Sign Up for Something New
A world of learning opportunities has opened up over the last couple months. Why not take advantage of your ability to learn a new skill while at home?
Various companies offer a subscription to kits that are delivered regularly. These kits often contain everything you need to get started on a new hobby or challenge yourself in a new skill.
The kit may come with your supplies, video links to instructions, and further learning. By accessing a part of your brain that may have been dormant since your school days you are giving your synapses a chance to grow.
Why not try a subscription for a kit such as:
- Soap Making
- Candle Making
- Baking with Sourdough
- Solve a Mystery Case
- Quilt making
- Jewelry making
- How to Create Your Legacy
Subscription boxes are popular because they give you something unexpected. You might be pleasantly surprised how much you enjoy an activity you wouldn’t have chosen on your own.
Using a new part of your brain triggers that feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction gained from learning a new skill.
Keep up with Social Connections
The days that we are living in have made social connections even more vital and yet harder to maintain, making it harder to reap the benefits of socialization. Now is the time to stretch how you think about relationships. Think outside of how you typically connect with people and explore how you can engage with others in a new way.
1. Use your phone
Phone calls continue to be the easiest way to connect with people. If you have loved ones with busy schedules, start off by asking if you can set up a time to give them a call. Being able to talk over the day’s events is a valuable form of stress relief and can help ward off brain drain.
2. Write a letter
Many people, children in particular, love getting surprises in the mail. A handwritten letter can be a sweet way to connect with someone you haven’t seen recently. You can even try your hand at making homemade cards, drawing a picture or writing a riddle.
3. Start a Video Chat
Video chatting has become front and center for staying connected from home. Research has shown that video chats are the closest form of communication to in-person meetings.
Try Virtual Games, Classes and Activities
You can take advantage of the fact that many activities have moved to an online format. From book clubs to Scrabble parties, the variety of online connections allows you to try new activities from the safety of your home.
Learning experts suggest that the future for adult learners will involve low-cost classes that use technology to respond to your actions, while you learn from world-class human teachers. Courses offered online are a great way to learn. From the comfort of your home you can have intellectual discussions with students and teachers from all over the world.
There are over 400+ existing programs for adult learning in North America. E-learning (learning electronically) is one of the fastest growing educational markets for all ages. The most popular ways of learning include programs like Duolingo. A language teaching app that you can use on a iPad, smart phone or computer. Instead of a dry lecture and boring memorization you are given fun, small clips of language that you engage with and can play each day. You can play these electronic games with your grandkids and both learn together!
Online courses are also becoming popular. Through websites like Coursera you can take hundreds of free classes on topics such as science, personal development or even art. You can take a class on the history of the Beetles by a professor from the University of Rochester.
Another source of free online learning are videos on Youtube and Ted Talks. You go to the websites and you can watch free short videos on any topic you can think of.
Hold onto that spark of curiosity and love for learning and safeguard your brain from deteriorating. You can spend your golden years embracing a wonderful future of new learning opportunities. And have fun too by learning with your family and friends.