The prime function of the brain is to produce adaptable and complex movement. Stop and think about it for a moment… seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling are all done through engaging or disengaging some muscles. The knowledge we acquire throughout our entire existence will assist us in making those decisions to engage this movement or not.
So, needless to say, learning new skills is of prime importance to assist us in our daily tasks. From the moment a child is born this learning starts, it seems effortless, it’s all about the learning and this carries on until we decide or we are told that we are too old to learn. I believe this to be wrong as we have the capacity to learn and adapt right up until the day we close our eyes forever. We live in such an amazing era where it has never been so easy to acquire knowledge. It’s not for everyone, some prefer to stay put and chug along and there is nothing wrong with that, but others want to improve their work conditions or feel fulfilled and valued in their workplace or at home and will never stop evolving and expanding their knowledge, to ultimately become a better version of themselves.
When are we too old to learn?
What is the truth about learning?
Scientists used to think that brain connections developed at a rapid pace in the first few years of life until you reached your mental peak in your 20’s, then your learning capacity would level off in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s depending on the individual. Then it was believed to decline after that, from your 60’s onwards. This is what we were told! Now the message is different, we know that the brain is continuously changing and developing all through your lifetime. More recent studies of the brain’s anatomy have shown that the adult brain is far more fertile than we thought and is more than capable of producing new connections necessary for acquiring new knowledge and complex skills. This is called brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, the capacity of the brain to change through life and its amazing ability to reorganize itself to form new connections between brain cells. This is extremely exciting news !!!
So a key part of brain plasticity is to consider learning new skills, ideas and knowledge a lifelong mission.
How does the brain plasticity change as we age?
Dendrites are a tree like structure, an extension of the nerve which propagates impulses from other neural cells to the cell body. Memories are formed when synapses are created as electrical signals jump across the brain’s neurons.
With aging, the branching of dendrites increases, therefore strengthening the connections between distant brain areas. This is a direct result of experience or wisdom, as the older adult’s brain becomes better equipped to understand the bigger picture or the global implications of specific issues. An older person is supposed to be better equipped in that sense and make less mistakes than a young one. Even after considerable brain injury, the brain is able to adapt and create fresh pathways. On the other hand some changes, like the deterioration of the myelin sheath surrounding the nerve fibres, may affect your capacity to encode new information into your memory and to retrieve information that is already there.
Some diseases like Alzheimer or Dementia can affect the brain structure and function and others such as diabetes and heart disease can also compromise your cognitive function.
However this depends on the individual person’s ability and interest to learn new things. As Dr Lara Boyd says “study how and what you learn best. Repeat those behaviours that are healthy for your brain and break those behaviours and habits that are not. Practice. Learning is about doing the work that your brain requires…. go out and build the brain you want“
So how do we stay mentally active as we age?
According to Dr. Boyd, science shows us that our brain can regenerate and reorganize. But changes in the brain are highly individual, so it’s important to understand what patterns help you improve your learning and to stay mentally and physically healthy to maximize our quality of life.
We now live in such a great moment in time where information is only one click away, so it has never been so easy to learn a new skill, to get better in your craft, to connect with other people and possibly to discover new passions you had never thought of before.
A recent study showed that last year, 74% percent of the population had taken some type of online course or classes to further their knowledge. Whether you are at home on your computer, on your smartphone as you go to work, or on a tablet, you can get access to any imaginable topic that you wish to and this wealth of information is limitless. So here are a few strategies you can implement to keep learning.
1- Make lifelong learning a priority!
There are lots of ways to do a daily mental workout.
- enjoy a daily puzzle, the crossword or sudoku
- opt for mental arithmetic rather than use the calculator
- engage in more reading, paper back, on a kindle, on your phone or tablet or perhaps by joining or starting a book club. If you are very busy some apps like audible or blinkist can make it easier for you to go through books in less time.
- play mind-stretching games, like bingo, bridge, chess or computer games. You can also play chess on your mobile device or use some brain training apps, like Peak Performance or Luminosity
- stay socially active – join a local choir or gardening club, or start a facebook group or twitter account so that you can stay in touch with long distance friends and relatives
- take up a new interest – learn to cook or to do some basic DIY, gardening, photography, self defense, even juggling is good for the brain.
- start a course, day or evening class, or an online course that can easily fit with your daily schedule.
- go out more with a friend – enjoy the cinema, theatre, galleries etc
- continue working or do voluntary work – social contact helps your memory and concentration and gives you a sense of purpose.
- learn how to play a new instrument, one you always wanted to play but never found the time.
- even trying out a new physical activity will stimulate the brain..
All these activities ( and this list is non exhaustive) are good to activate the process that helps maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them.
If you are curious about learning but you haven’t found your passion yet, I have put together a list of useful websites that will inspire you to start a new course and maybe learn new skills along the way.
I have personally tried the first three and I found a whole host ofskills and courses I had never thought of before and that really spiked my curiosity and thirst for learning.
I once heard the story of a 92 year old man who gained admittance into medical school. On the first day all the young new students were speculating about why he was there. One of them approached the old man and asked him, “Are you a professor? ” To which he replied, “Oh no, I am a student just like you. The young man was amazed and proceeded to ask him, “Why are you doing this? Will you ever practice medicine?” He smiled and said, “At the age of 92 I do not know if I will even finish the studies, let alone be able to practice medicine. But this is something I always wanted to do and time will pass the same, irregardless of my age and how I spend the time… so here I am enjoying this moment.” I love this story and it has shown me that it is never too late to learn. You are never too old to find a new interest or passion and that time will pass no matter what we chose to do. So, fill that time with learning !!
2- Use all your senses!
Some of our best memories are sometimes associated with a smell. The smell of petrol would remind me of my childhood in Spain. I would refuel the petrol tank daily and go out with the Rib, enjoying our day out at sea with my family. So when you are learning something new, it is important to engage as many senses as possible as this will enhance your experience and improve your power of retention. Some athletes repeat a movement with their eyes closed to reinforce the neural pathways without any visual reference. For example ,try tasting or smelling food with your eyes closed and guessing the ingredients or guessing some objects by touch alone. Be inventive and have fun challenging your senses.
Exercise is vital for mental agility. It gets the heart pumping and the circulation going which increases blood flow, carrying more nutrients and oxygen to the brain. Exercise also helps with depression and anxiety and other forms of emotional distress. In fact, exercise will increase the brain derived growth factor, BDNF, which will cross the blood/ brain barrier and can have cerebral benefits. For example, moderate to intense aerobic exercise for 40 minutes caused an average of 32% increase in serum BDNF levels compared to baseline levels. For you to know more on this subject I have linked a 13 page article from Dr Rondha Byrne.
I have recently bought Ben Greenfield’s amazing book called Boundless, and it has become my reference book for all the research i am continuously engaging, in my quest to live a happy healthy and fulfilling life to 100.
4- Eat a heathy diet
A healthy diet can benefit your brain and nervous system. Foods high in saturated fats such as cakes, biscuits, pastries and processed meats can speed mental decline. Other foods such as oranges and fruits, green leafy vegetables, oily fish and soya are good for the brain for adults and children. The importance of essential fatty acids for the brain development in utero and in young children is now repeatedly drummed into many parents
5- Be positive about your learning capabilities and believe in yourself. “Life is change, growth is optional. Choose wisely.” Karen Kaiser Clark.
In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow, famous for his hierarchy of needs, had put at the top of his pyramid – self actualization or the drive to reach your fullest potential.
As we age, it is not our mind that betrays us, rather it is our bodies and those set routines we impose on ourselves. Breaking through those psychological barriers is key to learning and you will soon unveil a widespread range of benefits, including a sharper mind overall, a positive outlook on life and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. This new knowledge will increase your level of competence in a certain area and in turn will boost your self confidence.
Why doing something new is good for you .
Knowledge is power! Yes, learning is empowering, it keeps you current, up to date with the new technologies, it encourages personal growth and in some cases can alleviate loneliness. As you get more and more acquainted with the use of the internet, search engines, social media interaction, it can lead to new friendship circles and can improve your self esteem. As aging gives you a considerable amount of experience, this in turn can play in your favor. Learning, whether it’s gaining new skills or studying for a degree, has health benefits too. It staves off the possible onset of gradual memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease or even Dementia and always keeps you sharp and engaged with the world around you.
So age can also be on your side?
Yes, definitely!! As with age comes experience and real life stories. It makes you more focused and more centered on what you want. Whether you are learning a new skill or starting a whole new career, you have made this choice, you have more discipline, wisdom, better time management skills and all this makes us more determined to succeed.
So where to start?
The good old fashioned way is to walk to your council and ask for any evening or day modules available for adult education. These evening classes run all year round and cover a wide variety of general subjects from computer use, creative writing, painting, language learning, business studies, etc. The list is endless !!
You could also ask in the company you work for if they have some further education scheme, as they very often set aside a budget for further adult education.
We live in an information era, all is readily available at our fingertips. So book an online taster course, some of them are free, in the subject that you like, start small with a course that is not too demanding, in time, cost or commitment and see how you like it. I tried skillshare for free and this was amazing as it gave me a huge range of courses to choose from. Once you have built some confidence and you are more familiar with online learning procedures, you can step up to more substantial courses, to learn new skills or even a new career.
Hence why continuing to learn after you leave school is as much about growing as it is about acquiring facts. So whether you pick up a book, watch an Tedx talk, start an online course, listen to a podcast or join a self defense class, it’s important to never stop learning.
“I think that the secret to learning anything at any age really is an insatiable curiosity about ‘whatever’ — could be one topic, or many topics depending on if you are a multi-tasker or not.”– Elaine Manganello
Learning a foreign language.
As you know from my about me page I was born in the Uk, brought up in France and with Spanish parents. Needless to say that from an early age I was immersed in speaking and listening to three different languages. Not only did I learn these languages but also I was immersed in the cultural differences of these wonderful countries. This has tremendously enriched my life in a social and cultural aspect, as well as in my professional career. Furthermore it motivated me to learn other languages during my travels. In Egypt, for example, whilst we were chartering our steel ketch in the vicinity of Hurghada, I was able to go shopping and have some basic conversations in Arabic with the locals. Having said that I was misunderstood many times, but instead of creating embarrassment or confusion, it caused much amusement and a better connection with the locals.
So learning another language is of prime importance to me .
Benefits to learning a new language! There are many benefits to learning a new language. Languages are windows to different cultures, allowing us to connect with others from around the world. But learning a new language extends past just having a simple conversation. It does so much more than that! It enhances your basic vocabulary, it broadens the meaning of words, it can change your view on concepts, metaphors or even improving your employability. A recent study by Dr. Thomas Bak shows that young adults proficient in two languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who spoke only one language. Dr. Bak tested 853 participants in 1947 when they were all 11 years old. They were retested in 2008 and 2010 when they were in their early 70s. He found that those who were bilingual performed better than expected. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. The results showed that learning a new language in adulthood still has positive results meaning there is never a reason to feel too old to gain the cognitive benefits of learning a new language.
Language learning helps!
1- Improves thinking skills and memory abilities. Bilingual students concentrate better, ignoring distractions more effectively than those who only speak one language. “Because the language centres in the brain are so flexible, learning a second language can develop new areas of your mind and strengthen your brain’s natural ability to focus.”
2- Can advance your career and make you more employable. Multilingual employees are very much sought out in many companies.
3- Will make your travelling more enjoyable and expand your cultural horizons.
4- Is the ultimate brain exercise as it increases your intelligence, keeps your mind sharp and is a buffer against brain aging.
5- Heightens brain plasticity.
6- Children who study a foreign language receive a boost in overall cognitive development, do better in school and have a higher self esteem. They have better listening skills and sharper memories. They are more creative, are better at solving complex problems and exhibit greater cognitive flexibility.
7- Will help you to be better at planning, prioritizing and decision making
8- Will make you more understanding of other people’s points of view
9- Will help you be more rational and make wiser decisions including better financial decisions.
10- Will improve your mental flexibility.
11- Will improve your listening skills.
12- Protects the brain from aging!
Knowing a second language can postpone the onset of Dementia and Alzheimer’s by an impressive 4.5 years. Brain scans found a noticeable difference in the brain activity of bilingual seniors.
Their brains worked much more efficiently, more like those of young adults. Scientists believe that these seniors’ brains have more reserve brainpower which helps them compensate for age-related memory loss. If knowing two languages is good for your brain, is knowing more languages even better?
The answer to this question seems to be “yes.” Research shows that the more languages you know the less likely you are to experience memory loss and cognitive decline. So lets get learning !!
Find here a list of some of the supplements and antioxidants that are good for your brain –
vitamin B6, B12, folic acid, vitamin E, Q10, Ginkgo biloba, fish oils, curcumin, coconut oil, green tea, resveratrol (found in the skin of purple and red fruits and also in red wine, chocolate and peanuts.)
I would be very interested for any information that you would want to share on this subject. Many thanks.