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The Importance of Learning Something New As You Age

As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But according to recent research, that may not be entirely true.

Though it’s harder for the brain to learn a new skill as you age, several studies show that taking on this challenge can lead to improved memory function and brain health.

According to a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, seniors who learn a new skill have improved memory. The study involved 221 people between age 60 to 90. In the study, some participants spent 16.5 hours a week for three months taking up hobbies or crafts such as digital photography and quilting. Another group did social activities such as watching movies or thinking about previous vacations, while a control group listened to the radio or played simple games and puzzles. Those in the first group who spent months learning a new skill had the biggest memory gains.

Researchers chose digital photography and quilting because they said these activities required the most active engagement, usage of long-term memory and cognitive ability. Researchers encouraged participants to continuously learn and improve upon the skills they developed. This proved to be more mentally challenging, and in turn, delivered the most cognitive benefit.

This suggests that what you learn is just as important as trying new things. Learning a new skill may reduce a senior’s risk of dementia by strengthening connections between different parts of the brain. These connections can be improved through activities such as learning a new language, learning to ride a bike or playing a new instrument because they are more cognitively demanding. In fact, recent research has shown that though it is difficult for an aging brain to take in new information, learning a new language has significant benefits for brain health and can slow cognitive decline as you age.

Why? Because being bilingual or multilingual allows the brain to get “built-in exercise.” Your brain has to do a bit more work to juggle two or more languages, so in a way it’s already trained to take in and process complicated information. Because of this, it may be easier to concentrate and focus on a variety of cognitive tasks, whether it’s word recognition or doing a crossword puzzle. Additional research has shown that people who know more than one language perform better on attention tests and have a better ability to concentrate.

We’ve seen the same pattern with other activities, as well. According to one 2013 study, children who learned an instrument when they were younger had better cognitive function as adults. Though the study involved children, researchers say playing music improves brain health because doing this activity involves so many different and repetitive cognitive processes, along with the emotional engagement that comes from being involved in musicmaking.

If you want to stay mentally sharp as you age, here are a few activities to consider:

  • Learn a foreign language: As I previously mentioned, learning another language is the equivalent of a mental workout for the brain and may improve attention and concentration.
  • Solve or riddle or a puzzle: These activities require a lot of problem-solving skills and can enhance your creativity and mental sharpness.
  • Learn a new instrument: In addition to the constant practice, learning a new instrument can improve hand-eye coordination, leading to physical as well as cognitive benefits for seniors. Drawing, knitting and painting have similar benefits, too.
  • Memorize a daily list: make a grocery or things to-do list and memorize it. Wait an hour or so and see how many items on the list you can remember.
  • Learn a new recipe or take a cooking class: Review a recipe and see if you can cook it from memory without looking at a piece of paper. Or, take a cooking class. Cooking involves so many different activities and senses — from touch and taste to smell and sight — that your brain will work overtime to process everything going on around you.

Try a new skill on your own or call your local senior center and community center to find out what activities they offer. The brain isn’t a muscle, but it certainly behaves like one, so continuously exercise it to keep it in the best shape.

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