“Under optimal environmental conditions, almost every physical aspect of the brain can recover from age-related losses.” --Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich
Not long ago the majority of neuroscientists believed that the number of brain cells in a human brain was fixed and that there was nothing we could do to grow new ones or alter the circuitry of our brains. In recent times, this view of the brain has been completely…well, turned on its head. We now know that we all can grow new brain cells by engaging in moderate physical exercise for as little as 40 minutes three times per week (walking is fine). We’ve also learned that the brain has a profound ability to rewire itself, a concept known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to develop and strengthen new neural pathways at a cellular level. Whenever we attempt to do something with our minds that is new or difficult, a chemical is activated in the brain called acetylcholine. This is the brain’s “pay attention!” chemical and it is associated with neuroplasticity and improved cognitive functioning.
Concert violinists spend years learning to master difficult finger positions. As a consequence, the regions of their brain that control these movements are several times larger than those of non-violinists. That’s neuroplasticity.
A great analogy, especially here in Colorado, is a snow covered mountain slope that has sled tracks worn from many trips down the hill. If you take your sled to the top, chances are you will follow the grooves of your previous trips down unless you use great effort to lurch your sled onto a new path. On subsequent rides, however, this new pathway becomes easier and easier for you to select. You have built a new pathway. Your brain works much the same way.
To build new pathways, the key is to select things that are new and difficult. Learn to play a musical instrument or study a foreign language. Drive home a different way or attend a lecture on a topic you know little about. All of these are excellent ways to exercise your brain.
Exercising your brain increases it strength, a concept scientists call “cognitive reserve.” This can provide a buffer against diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. One study found a 33% lower likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease among those who engaged in as little as one additional cognitive activity per week!
And the best part…learning new things is fun!
Zane Robertson is the President of Active Minds®, a Denver based provider of educational programs for seniors. He is a frequent speaker on lifelong learning and senior education and has served on the Denver Commission on Aging and the board of the Denver Coalition for Seniors. Active Minds programs are available in most Denver senior residential communities as well as a variety of public venues. For more information, contact Mr. Robertson at 303‑320‑7652 or visit www.ActiveMindsForLife.com.
Copyright © 2011 Active Minds®. All rights reserved.