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The key to ageing better: exercise your brain

There’s a longstanding link between ageing and cognitive decline, one that has become so accepted that it’s slipped into our everyday language. Once we’re past middle age, having ‘a senior moment’ is just par for the course, isn’t it? Psychologists beg to differ.

Research published in Nature: Human Behaviour in February 2022, shows that age-related slowing of mental speed is not apparent until 60+. While the speed of response for simple decision-making tasks begins to decline from as early as the early twenties, there is much more to mental speed than a quick response, other factors such as more complex decision-making need to be taken into account. Psychologists analysed 1.2 million participants and their findings challenge the widespread belief that mental agility declines over time.

Good news indeed, but why is it important? For one thing, our beliefs about ageing and age stereotypes have been shown to affect health outcomes in later life. Read more about this in an earlier article, Is ageing all in the mind?

Secondly, it means that if we believe we have the mental capacity to learn then we’re more likely to continue to take on new challenges as we grow older. Having successful completed a Masters degree in Psychology at the age of 58, I’m a big advocate for the advantages of learning in later life.

Learning helps us to age better

So, what are the benefits of continuing to learn as we age, of exercising not just our bodies but our minds too? Research has found that it can decrease our risk of cognitive impairment in the longer term. Researchers at Columbia University found that the time a person spent in education was one factor that decreased a person’s risk of mild cognitive impairment. Those with an average of 11.5 years in education were 5% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment compared with those with only ten years in education.

One theory for this link is that spending longer in education is linked to higher socioeconomic status – which may mean a person has the resources to access healthier lifestyle and healthcare options.
Another theory is that learning helps our brains to build more neurons and connections, which in turn helps the brain function better. This may help us to compensate for any changes from age-related mild cognitive impairment.

Lastly, learning can be fun, and enjoying life is also strongly linked to more positive outcomes in later life. Pick a subject that’s interesting to you, whether it’s something hands-on like art, a practical skill like learning a new language, or something more academic on a subject that you’ve always wanted to know more about. And go for it! There are lots of free and affordable learning options out there. See the Resources page for some ideas.

Literature and links

von Krause, M., Radev, S.T. & Voss, A. ‘Mental speed is high until age 60 as revealed by analysis of over a million participants’ Nat Hum Behav (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01282-7

Angevaare, M.J., Vonk, J.M.J., Bertola, L., Zahodne, L., Watson, C.W., Boehme, A., Schupf, N., Mayeux, R., Geerlings, M.I., Manly, J.J. ‘Predictors of Incident Mild Cognitive Impairment and Its Course in a Diverse Community-Based Population’, Neurology Jan 2022, 98 (1) e15-e26; https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000013017

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