Healthy ageing – you can/must teach an old dog new tricks

With age comes experience and wisdom.

healthy ageing - learning new skills

With age comes experience and wisdom. This makes older people particularly valuable to our family, friends, colleagues and businesses. But that doesn’t mean we have maxed out our learning capacity; learning is an essential part of healthy ageing. In fact, the act of learning for the brain, is the equivalent of physical exercise for our bodies. With physical exercise, I’ve written about the importance of strength training for maintaining or increasing muscle mass. Research shows that our brain is like a muscle that needs exercise to makes it stronger and the more we challenge ourselves the more we build up our brain capacity. 

Coating the surface of our brain is a vital layer of tissue called the cerebral cortex, where most of our actual information processing takes place. This is often called the “grey matter”, as the nerves in this area lack the insulation that makes other parts of our brain appear white.  Inside our cortex are 100 billion tiny nerve cells, called neurons. All sensations, movements, thoughts, memories and feelings are the results of signals that pass through the neurons. These neurons have branches with 100 trillion connections to other cells, which allow us to think, and problem solve. 

Giving your brain a workout

Learning enables our brain to form new neurons and connections and makes our existing neural pathways stronger. This is called neuroplasticity. The more we challenge our mind to learn, the more our brain cells grow and the stronger these connections become. In addition, as these connections strengthen, they become more efficient, transmitting messages increasingly faster. 

Just like strength training, learning something new takes work, but with regular practice, what at first seemed impossible, becomes increasingly possible. For example, speaking a foreign language or solving a complex puzzle. The end result is a stronger, smarter brain.

healthy ageing learning new skills

As with strength training, with new learning our brain “muscles” grow regardless of age!

When we stop learning, we not only get bored, but our brain slows down and becomes less responsive. We also lose confidence, we lose self-worth, and we shrink into ourselves, resulting in an ever-worsening spiral of decline and isolation. Over a long period, boredom is linked to heart disease rates that are more than twice as high as those who were not bored. 

Continuous learning and healthy ageing

So, not only can an old dog learn new tricks, but it must also. As we age continuous learning becomes even more important. The most effective learning is when we push ourselves with new challenges. Once we’ve mastered something and the task becomes repetitive or routine, we switch to auto-pilot and the effectiveness of learning reduces. Our brain workout can even more beneficial when it is combined with social interactions in a face-to-face environment, requiring us to verbally engage and read emotional and facial cues, rather than via online courses.

Learning should engage all parts of our brain, with creativity, intuition, emotion and communication activating the right side and planning, logic, analysis and facts activating the left side. Also, memorising routes, dance moves, tech processes or vocabulary activates the hippocampus and can improve every aspect of our cognitive function, including critical thinking.

Total learning is a technique that activates both the left and right hemispheres at the same time and therefore enhances our knowledge acquisition and recall. For example, by combining a text with a picture, or lyrics and a song, or facts and an emotion. 

New skills can drive new purpose

When we combine continual learning, with purpose and passion, we unlock the Japanese secret to a long and happy life. And with our wisdom or years and experience, we know that learning is not about getting everything right, it’s about making mistakes, trying again and continual improvement. 

Starting a new business can unlock many new challenges and learning opportunities. And the most successful entrepreneurs are older, as they benefit from their additional years of experience and wisdom. A 50-year-old founder is twice as likely to build a thriving enterprise as a 30-year-old. 

One last point, to maximise our brain activity, also requires us to stay physically healthy. For example aerobic exercise gets our blood flowing not just around the body, but also around the brain, which will improve memory, information processing and neuroplasticity.

To help us make Britain one million biological years younger take our autum Lifescore calculator to determine your biological age and use our autum app on Android or IOS to help improve your biological age today!

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