Lifelong learning is a key to brain health. Research shows it can reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that disproportionately impacts women. Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM) at Cleveland Clinic expert Simrit Saraon, DPN, APRN, discusses the importance of learning, the role it can play in prevention and changes woman can make to boost brain health.
Simrit Saraon, DPN, APRN
Nurse Practitioner, Cognitive Disorders, Cleveland Clinic
“Taking part in activities that stimulate brain function is one of the factors that can help in reducing the risk of dementia.”
Why is it important to continue to seek out new challenges and areas of knowledge into adulthood and later life?
Learning is beneficial at every stage of life. It promotes brain health and reduces risk of cognitive impairment. Recent studies have shown that learning increases neurogenesis, the process by which adult brains produce new nerve cells called neurons. Adults don’t generate as many new neurons as children or teenagers, but some growth is still happening.
What is neuroplasticity and how can we promote it?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and change itself in response to environmental stimulus, cognitive demand or behavioral experience. It is an umbrella term referring to the brain’s ability to rewire itself and function differently from how it functioned previously. This can involve structural changes due to learning or functional changes due to brain damage.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows neuroplasticity occurs throughout the lifetime. It’s more prevalent early in life. To promote neuroplasticity at any age, one can enrich their environment by learning something new, exploring new places, exercising regularly, improving sleep hygiene, practicing mindfulness, or engaging in games (board games, card games, video games, etc.).
Is academic learning the only way to create new pathways in the brain?
Academic learning does help in creating new pathways in the brain and increases cognitive reserves. We can also create new pathways by participating in new activities and developing new behaviors. New activities can be as complex as learning a new language to as simple as learning to write with your non-dominant hand. Developing new behavior can be anything from taking a different route to work or to home.
You should get 20-30 minutes of physical exercise per day for five days a week, and practice mindfulness to relieve stress. All of these things help in creating new pathways.
It is important to practice repetition of the new activity to help the pathway become stronger. It takes a minimum of three months of practice to develop a new neural pathway and master a new pattern of behavior. This timeframe can fluctuate, as each brain is unique.
Do different activities or types of thinking affect different parts of the brain?
Yes, different activities or types of thinking do affect different parts of the brain. For example, aerobic exercises, including brisk walking, running, or swimming, can stimulate and increase the size of the anterior hippocampus, leading to improved spatial memory. Learning a new language results in growth in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. Working on puzzles activates both the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Can lifelong learning help prevent dementia?
Taking part in activities that stimulate brain function is one of the factors that can help in reducing the risk of dementia. Yet, it’s not as simple as it seems. People with more years of education, work experience, active lifestyles, and good physical and mental health are likely to have less cognitive decline with advancing age.
One can start learning at any age. Current research suggests that the value of cognitively stimulating activities builds up over a lifetime. People who spend more time engaged in learning across their lifetimes tend to develop more robust networks of nerve cells and connections between those nerve cells within their brains. Those networks are better equipped to handle the cell damage that can happen as a result of brain disorders that may lead to dementia.