How can continuous learning support the preservation of memories and the prevention of cognitive decline?

Can continuous learning protect your brain?

Continuous learning throughout one’s life has significant benefits.  In 1986, David Snowden began a long-term study of 678 dedicated nuns, funded by the National Institute on Aging.  As a condition of the study, he did regular tests on their physical and cognitive health.  When the participants died, they donated their brains for further research through autopsy.

These autopsies yielded a surprising discovery.  Although some of the nuns had brains full of amyloid plaques and tau tangles—the hallmark characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease—the nuns had shown no signs of Alzheimer’s while they were alive.

Neuroscientists credit the nuns’ cognitive reserve.  Since they were continually learning, they had so many neural connections that when one synapse failed, they had others to use instead, demonstrating their brains’ neuroplasticity, or ability to strengthen neural connections and synapses.  This neuroplasticity kept the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease from showing.

Continuous learning reduces your risks of cognitive decline

Learning is like a mental bank account.  The more synapses you have strengthened and developed by challenging your brain to keep learning, the more your neurons will be able to redirect their messages when a synapse fails.

According to some experts, people with high mental activity have a 46% lower risk of developing cognitive decline.  You can increase your odds of keeping a healthy brain and join those who are lowering their risk of cognitive decline.  Let me explain how.

Mental activity is anything that stimulates your brain.  Such activity can occur when you think about something internally or externally from your environment.  Your social contacts, work, leisure, and educational activities can all contribute to your mental activities.

The density of synapses decreases in patients with cognitive decline.  So, if the mental activity described can help you produce new synaptic connections in your brain, it’s a meaningful way to protect your cognitive health.

You Can protect your brain with continuous learning

If you want to protect your brain from the damage of Alzheimer’s, learning is essential.  Consider the following 3-point strategy to help you maximize the effectiveness of your learning activities.

1.  Learning needs to be ongoing

It takes a lot of work to master a new skill like learning the Norwegian language or processing information like the history of World War II.   The parts of your brain that involve learning and memory expand, which is incredible news for those with Alzheimer’s.

According to neuroscientist Jason Castro, once you master a skill or content area, your brain stops growing and retracts to its normal size—and as you age, “normal” means smaller and smaller. If atrophy and smaller brain size typically come with age, maintaining the growth that you gained from the mental activity is extremely important.

2.  Learning has to stretch you

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett studies “super-agers”—people in their 60s and 70s whose brains are as sharp as 25-year-olds.  For one research project, her team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of people in this group. Somehow the super-agers did not show the typical brain atrophy or thinning that comes with age.

How is this possible? Two reasons, Barrett said: vigorous physical exercise combined with strenuous mental effort.

So if you want to be more like the super-agers, work your body hard—until you are breathless and “feel the burn.” Then, exercise your mind just as hard.

Working your mind means picking something to learn that won’t come quickly and isn’t necessarily fun.  Learn a musical instrument.  Take a chemistry class at the community college (or Shakespeare if you tend naturally to math and science).  Memorize poetry, scripture, or even your grocery list. Learn and master the game of chess.

Most of all, step out of your comfort zone and if it’s temporarily unpleasant and challenging – fantastic!  That’s what your brain needs.  As Barrett says, “Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.”

3.  It’s best if learning involves more than one sense

If you use only sight in your learning activities, that’s one level of difficulty.  However, if you add smell, hearing, taste, and touch, learning becomes a multisensory experience, which requires the brain to reorganize itself, making new connections throughout the brain—which is what you want for better cognitive health.  Your brain has been designed to involve all your senses.

Learning a new cooking technique can be multisensory.  Consider the example of making a pastry dish.  You mix the butter, flour, salt, and water using your arms.  With your eyes, you see if the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  With your hands, you form the mixture into a ball.  You engage your brain when you follow directions to chill and then roll out the dough. Eventually, you taste the cooked pastry and feel the flakiness in your mouth.  In these ways, cooking offers many opportunities for multisensory learning.

Woodworking, auto mechanics, preserving produce, knitting, playing the piano—the opportunities for multisensory learning are almost unlimited.  If you can do this learning as part of a group, you also have social interactions.

More details about how to further maximize learning effectiveness are available in my book, Dementia Action Plan: Give Your Brain a Fighting Chance.  Additionally, our website provides a variety of print and video resources to help you learn even more about Alzheimer’s treatment and prevention.

What about passive entertainment?

Barrett also says that one of the reasons we choose to abandon the more difficult tasks of learning is because we want a comfortable, pleasant life.  I suspect that’s why many people spend so much time in passive entertainment.

Television, for example, does so much of the thinking for you.  There’s no response required from you, no need to imagine what people look like, as you would need to do with a book.  No conversation, no need even to decide when to laugh.  A friend of mine realized one day that she couldn’t remember the names of characters on the television shows she watched—but then, why should she?

Even documentaries and so-called educational television programs require little response from you, little actual effort on your part to learn something.  However, if you took notes, made flashcards, and then quizzed yourself, that would be beneficial. If you watched television as part of a discussion group, that would also be beneficial.

Accept the challenge of continuous learning

Regrettably, at the end of a long day, most of us want to relax in an armchair and watch our television shows or a video—and that’s not helpful at all.  As stated earlier, step out of your comfort zone and accept the challenge of new learning.  So, my suggestion is to limit the time you spend on this type of passive entertainment.

Instead, choose continuous learning and do something more active with your mind.  Your brain will thank you!