- A new study shows that rigorous learning is associated with better brain function in older people
- The emphasis must be on putting time and effort into learning to reap cognitive benefits
- Taking classes in any area of interest and doing all required work can help prevent loss of memory as we age
Research on Learning, Brain Function, and Aging
They say youth is wasted on the young, and that may be particularly true when it comes to appreciating learning. It is the rare child who loves attending school and truly values how different subjects can expand the mind. As we get older, we certainly understand that better, but often we are too busy with work and family responsibilities to consider taking the time to further our knowledge in classes. But according to new research, perhaps that is exactly what we should all be doing to keep our brains in tip-top shape as we age.
The study, which was conducted at the University of California, Riverside, found that intensive learning can keep cognitive abilities functioning at a high level well into our senior years.[fn]Leanos, Shirley; et al. “The Impact of Learning Multiple Real-World Skills on Cognitive Abilities and Functional Independence in Healthy Older Adults.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. 14 June 2019. Accessed 24 July 2019. http://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/advance-article/doi/10.1093/geronb/gbz084/5519313.[/fn] These results are based on an investigation that included 42 men and women ranging in age from their 60s through their 80s, with no signs of dementia or memory difficulties. They essentially entered college, taking three challenging classes at once.
The courses required a commitment of 15 hours per week or more, plus regular homework, and lasted for three months. Each of the subjects took a test to measure their cognitive function prior to the start of the classes and again six weeks later before the term was even finished. By that six-week mark, their scores showed tremendous improvement—in fact, they reached a level of ability similar to what a typical middle-aged person would score.
Pushing Yourself May Be the Key to Boosting Your Brain
While this research was too small in size and scope to definitively say that intensive learning can help everyone mentally, the findings do build on those of earlier studies that show engaging in learning activities and developing new skills may improve memory and cognitive abilities.
But the catch is that the current investigation suggests that it is important to go beyond just giving your brain a quick workout every day. Doing a crossword puzzle or listening to a few intricate pieces of classical music may provide your brain with stimulation, which might be enough to help push dementia further out. But it’s probably not enough to truly keep those synapses firing and fully rebuild your mental capabilities as you get older. A more immersive experience that takes a good deal of concentration and hours of effort should offer considerably more to benefit your brain. It could work much the same as exercising your body—a little is always helpful, but a longer, more comprehensive workout will do so much more.
What Kind of Activities are Best for Your Brain?
In the study, participants were given a choice of classes studying Spanish language, painting, drawing, music composition, photography, and learning to use an iPad. Many of the processes for learning in the arts and language take place in the same areas of the brain, including the temporal and frontal lobes, so choosing a pursuit such as these might contribute to the brain benefits and improve cognitive abilities.
But seeing how each volunteer was allowed to select the classes most appealing to them, it is likely that another important factor is being interested in the subject matter enough to want to put in the time and effort to really learn new things. Therefore, if learning a new language (and planning a trip to its country of origin) inspires you, go for it. If the Civil War era has always fascinated you, choose that as the focus of your studies. If you’d love to learn all about designing and building a website, take the initiative. It is entirely up to you.
There’s no need to enroll in a program that will earn you a degree, unless of course that is your heart’s desire. You may be able to audit university classes for free, take them at your local community college, discover online options you like, or find great continuing education courses in your town.