How the Brain Responds to Learning as We Age

Apr 16, 2024

aatl-lifelong-learning (3).jpgWe often hear that “staying active” is the best way to preserve good health, but to what extent is that true? How does nature versus nurture factor in? While regular exercise may help us build muscle and improve strength and balance, what will it do to keep our minds intact? Experts warn there is little, if any, empirical evidence that brain exercises and other extraneous efforts do more than improve short-term memory. Let’s take a closer look at how the brain changes as we age, and how learning can help preserve mental acuity.

Stages of Development

From infancy to old age, the body continues to change in relation to the demands put on it and the fuel it is supplied. How do these physical developments relate to aptitude? Young children have been known to acquire second languages without difficulty, but after age 7, it becomes more of a challenge and, after age 12, more difficult. Why is that? The differences in our social and emotional development and cognitive abilities are quite different during each of these stages. Why wouldn’t we expect to see the same kinds of differences as our bodies change during adulthood?

Challenge is Key

Kathleen Taylor, PhD, professor in the Doctorate in Educational Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College of California, explains that it’s part of our normal development process to continue learning as adults:

“The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding. As adults, we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.”

Dr. Taylor explains that when we challenge ourselves by choosing to listen to perspectives that are different than our usual preference, whether it be in the people we spend time with, watching a movie, or being exposed to a new languages or culture, we are changing our brain in the process. In addition, other studies have demonstrated that acquiring new complex skills, such as quilting or photography, provides similar benefits.

Genetic Predisposition

Some older adults may benefit from a genetic predisposition of the brain to resist damage, known as cognitive reserve, which determines how well you can compensate for lost brain function. According to historical research, cognitive reserve enables brains to better cope with the loss of neurons that come with advancing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In balance, being exposed to an enriched environment with many opportunities for physical, mental, and social stimulation and other lifestyle factors has been shown to boost the brain’s natural resilience.

Multiple Languages

Is there a language that you’ve always wanted to master? It’s easy to survive as an American travelling abroad when every modern city and popular destination caters to English-speaking visitors. But learning another language can do a lot more than help you order dinner. In 2014, the study Does Bilingualism Influence Cognitive Aging? published in the Annals of Neurology,  found that speaking two or more languages may slow cognitive decline, even if the second language was learned in adulthood.

Lifelong Learning at The Admiral at the Lake

Residents of The Admiral at the Lake have a passion for lifelong learning. Under the leadership of Outstanding Volunteer Award winner Toni Smith, the Lifelong Learning group organizes a consistent array of educational opportunities. The combined personal and professional networks of Admiral residents provide extraordinary opportunities for lectures, symposia, and classes. Some of the subjects that have been covered include local, national, and global landmarks and architecture; science topics such as astrophysics, biology, and zoology; arts; government; and religion.

Life Plan Living

If you would like to learn more about the lifelong learning activities and other exciting events happening at The Admiral at the Lake, we invite you to check us out. Our senior living community provides outstanding comfort and a sense of community for residents who consider retirement to be a chance to get out and live the life they choose, free from the burden of maintenance and competing priorities. Visit us online or call 773-433-1801 to set up a tour.