DEC 2019: OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS

Health

As with physical exercise, you have to keep your memory fit for it to function. Learning a new skill at any age is crucial for your mental agility: here’s why.

Your brain has the ability to change. Neurons in the brain are able to adapt all throughout your life, with a quality known as neuroplasticity.

Of course, brains are at their most ‘plastic’ and malleable in the earliest years of life. But as research technology has got better, scientists have been able to prove that learning and developing new skills later in life can change the structure of the brain too.

How does learning something new help me?

Normal age-related memory loss is down to a few factors. The part of the brain that forms and retrieves memories – your hippocampus – deteriorates slightly with age, and the proteins that repair brain cells also slow down.

But that’s not the final story. You can prevent cognitive decline as you age, and one way to do so is through mental training, which is effectively exercise for your brain.

In one study in the US, 200 people were asked to take a memory test. Some were then asked to repeatedly practice a new skill, while others either did nothing or undertook a passive activity, like watching a movie. When they took a second memory test, months later, those who had consistently practiced something new performed better in their test.

What can I learn?

The key to exercising your brain’s agility is to try something that you find mentally challenging. That doesn’t mean it has to be rocket science at all, but rather something new that requires focus. For some, that might be a practical activity like film photography or sewing – for others, it might be a crossword.

Crucially, you need to keep practicing.

In fact, when it comes to memory, practice really is the key element. Often when we age we choose not to rely on our memories, believing them to be possibly flawed. But the more we avoid testing our memory, the weaker it becomes.

It’s a tough cycle, but you can improve your cognitive ability with practice.