Scientists continue to investigate the benefits of keeping an aging brain active. Many questions remain about what kinds of brain activity might help delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia. While there is no conclusive evidence that exercising the intellect will forestall mental decline, there are still plenty of good reasons for an older person to go back to school or find other ways to keep learning.
Arthur Toga, a professor of neurology and director of the laboratory of neuroimaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, says when you are learning something new, you are actually stimulating blood flow to unused regions in your brain and prolonging the health of those areas.
“You’re changing the circuitry in your brain. That is because you have changed something in your brain to retain that memory.”
Similarly, if you perform a task that you are unused to, you are exercising your brain in a new way – with the same benefit.
Both Dr. Toga and another expert in the area say that while using the brain might help avert some of the mental slowing that comes with aging, it has its limits. Dr. William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley says an individual’s cognitive activity earlier in their 40s and 50s might be the greatest determinant to how the brain performs later. He says younger brains tend to be more efficient, and being mentally active throughout life – not just in old age—is vital.
Another question researchers are examining is what activities are best suited for an older brain. They found that social interaction is always good. “It involves so much of the brain. You have to interpret facial expressions and understand new concepts,” sayd Dr. Toga. He says realistically, seniors aren’t going to learn new tricks like riding a unicycle or some other acrobatics. But, any exercise they can do that stimulates a new part of the brain is valuable.
If you would like to read more about which parts of the brain hold up over the years, click here.