Change is good for your brain. Any new activity, whether weekly cooking classes or guitar lessons, triggers the creation of new connections between brain cells. If you couple skill acquisition with physical exercise, your brain can actually create and develop new cells. The old school of thought (that neuron connections became rigid and new cell growth impossible as we age) has been flipped on its head in recent years. No matter how old you are, your brain is “plastic” – that is, it can change and regenerate and grow.
Regular physical activity
In order to take advantage of this capacity, one that can stave off senile and pre-senile dementias (such as Alzheimer’s), your brain must be nourished and your body exercised. Satisfying the two requirements at the same time, such as learning a fast-moving sport like ping-pong or a physical/mind routine like yoga, is the quickest route to firing up those neurons; however, as long as your lifestyle embraces regular physical activity, the learning itself doesn’t have to be done on the run.
By taking advantage of this new knowledge on how our brains work, we can not only look forward to senior years with fewer senior moments but also take on previously scary tasks with less trepidation. For example, adult language acquisition can actually be an enjoyable intellectual exercise instead of feared. Although perhaps the language-specific areas of the brain may not be quite as responsive in people over 12 years of age (the usual cut-off point), at least we know now that our brains aren’t set in stone.
Spin-off effects of later-life learning
In fact, the spin-off effects of later-life learning are quite literally endless in their possibilities. Conducting business in a foreign country (or spending time or even relocating there) becomes a real option once the basics of that language have been mastered. It doesn’t have to be language, of course, or even anything academic: learn to sight read music and join a vocal group; join a chess club; play mahjong (and win the championship!).
Knowing that change is good for your brain — and that the brain itself is capable of change — should be encouraging to seniors who think they’re “too old” to learn how to use a computer (or a cell phone or an i-Pod). Successful learning leads to reigniting curiosity and confidence, attributes usually associated with young people. The ability to embrace change, to actively seek it out, is also something we tend to ascribe to the young. After all, you don’t see many 20-somethings who describe themselves as “stuck in a rut” or “tired of the rat race.” Maybe change, in all its facets of learning, exploring and challenging ourselves, is truly the world’s fountain of youth.