An old saying claims that “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.” Now research is discovering that “new tricks” are exactly what “old dogs” need to keep a youthful and healthy brain.
A common misconception is that childhood and early adulthood are a time of brain growth while on the other hand, later adulthood has been considered as a time of brain decline. We take for granted the time of youth is a time when a person is constantly learning new things, seeking out new adventures and displaying more inquisitiveness. The opposite is thought of when considering a person with more accumulated years. They are expected to be set in their ways, more forgetful and uninterested in experiencing the new.
Certainly a gradual weakening of understanding, thinking and remembering is a natural and expected part of ageing. Cognitive decline can be shown by affects on memory, response time, attention skills and the ability to speak and understand what others are saying. While we face a gradual loss in mental sharpness as we age, this decline is not the same as Alzheimer’s which is a pathological condition. Even though this process is a normal part of ageing, several studies have shown that people who remain mentally active experience less cognitive decline.
Brain plasticity is a powerful and natural force for carrying out valuable changes in the brain. An individual’s brain may be ageing, but it is also continuing to develop. Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the brain’s ability to change physically. In response to new learning or stimuli, new neural pathways and connections are continuously being created. These physical changes can happen at any age. These are some facts about our brains as we age:
* The brain continues to form new brain cells (Neurogenesis)
* The brain can change its structure and function (Plasticity)
* Positive stress can be valuable to brain plasticity and negative stress can be damaging
* The brain thrives on novel challenges
* The brain needs to be exercised, just like the body
The brains natural plasticity can be improved by the right stimuli. More is needed than simply solving crossword puzzles, reading a newspaper or daubing a bingo card. A brain fitness programme must be intensive and progressively challenging. By pushing the brain to learn new skills, it builds and refines neural pathways. Combining mental exercise with physical exercise can greatly improve general cognition and boost creativity.
Many adults have a tendency to get set in their ways, not trying new things and not thinking about new ways to do old things. The truth turns out to be that change can be one of the best ways to keep ageing brains healthy. The following benefits are created when a person learns something new, especially if is outside the area of their expertise.
* Keeps the mind fresh and gives a spark to life
* Serves as a reminder of what it was like to be young and eager to learn
* Invigorates mental “muscles”
Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change, for better or worse, throughout life. It is a concept that is simple: the brain is not static, it responds to circumstances and to new learning. Stressful experiences also have an impact on neural activity, for better or worse. Three types of stress have been identified.
* Positive: consisting of challenges which are positive
* Tolerable: consisting of adverse events combined with good social and emotional support
* Toxic: consisting of sustained stress and lack of social and emotional support
Brain plasticity is a physical process. Neural connections can be forged and refined or weakened and severed. Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities. Each time a person learns something new, it reflects a change in their physical brain by creating new neural pathways that give instructions to their body on how to perform a new task. Each time someone forgets a name, it also reflects brain change as neural pathways that once connected to the memory have been degraded or even disconnected.
The growing understanding of, and interest in, brain plasticity is driving a revolution in brain health and science. Scientists and institutions around the world are beginning to look at plasticity based therapies for treating a wide range of cognitive disorders. Not only can regular brainpower and health be improved, but also new ways of treating various conditions will be found including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic pain. Any programmes based on brain plasticity would be using the brains natural learning mechanisms and would lessen requirements for invasive procedures or drug therapies.
Keep your brain young, healthy and functioning. Exercise, proper nutrition and adequate sleep are essential. Adopt a positive philosophy of life and develop good relations, not only with family and friends, but with all you meet. Welcome and seek out new challenges and adventures and become a lifelong learner. Your brain will thank you.