Lifelong learning helps build new connections in the brain. Reading a news article or doing a crossword puzzle isn’t enough. The kind of learning you did in school created new neural connections. We need novel information that takes effort to encode to exercise the brain.
“A critical requirement for neuroplasticity to emerge is to make practice context sufficiently difficult for the learner.” – Pauwels, Chalavi, and Swinnen
Building new connections in the brain
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change. With improvements in brain imaging, it is a key area of research for stroke, dementia, depression and many other diseases. The ability to change the brain’s neural connections is the basis for brain training programs that have cropped up in recent years.
Past demographic studies showed that people with more years of education got dementia less often than those with little formal education. Current research is showing that early education does not protect against dementia. There is, however, some evidence that education in later life staves off symptoms of dementia.
Cognitive reserve – build a bigger brain
This area of research focuses on cognitive reserve. In brain autopsies, some people have massive areas of plaques and tangles, evident in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease, but had no symptoms of dementia before death. One theory is that they have enough “brain power” to withstand the damage of the plaques and tangles. The idea is that if you build up enough cognitive reserve, your brain can function well enough until you die from something else (nobody lives forever).
As we age, there is a decline in brain volume. A 2016 study used brain imaging to measure changes in white matter after a 12-week cognitive training program for older adults. They found a positive association with white matter volume and improvement in processing speed, compared to the control group.
Going back to school
The Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project in Australia is looking at later-life university education and its possible impact on delaying cognitive decline. A 2018 study found that older college students improved crystallized intelligence (ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience) but not fluid cognitive functions (ability to think and reason abstractly).
The scaffolding theory suggests that as the brain degenerates, it builds compensation scaffolding. This model offers a pathway to show how cognitive training may affect neuron networks.
Another area of study is a combination of cognitive and physical training. French researchers proposed that the two approaches work separately on different brain functions.
Learning and Doing
Functional MRI was used to compare the brains of 20 young and 19 older adults in a dance training experiment. British researchers used Dance Central 2 on Xbox 360 Kinect with people who had limited or no experience in dance or playing dance video games. Younger adults showed better performance gains, but older adults had more neural activity after the physical training in the inferior parietal lobule.
So there is evidence building that older adults should continue to learn, study, practice and create. Stretching your brain muscle and building your physical strength can improve your life in many ways. If it delays the onset of dementia symptoms, that’s even better.
Next week in Part 2: Many ways you can learn and build new connections.