How Learning New Things Keeps Your Brain Healthy

February 18, 2016

A healthy brain is an active brain – makes sense for all ages, right? Cognitive stimulation is especially critical when it comes to the aging brain and preventing or delaying the onset of dementia symptoms. The brain training industry marketed to seniors is built on this premise, offering computer-based games as a way to stimulate neuron activity and improve memory. But researchers are starting to weigh in here, making the distinction between activities like brain teasers and crossword puzzles, which can boost short-term brain function, and the comparative value of actually learning a whole new skill. When it comes to providing the maximum cognitive benefit, says University of Texas scientist Denise Park“it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially; when you are inside your comfort zone, you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

So what kind of activity is she talking about? Again, the primary goal is to choose something that teaches you an entirely new skill; simply practicing what you’re already good at doesn’t count. Pick an activity whose proficiency requires your full attention and sustained concentration – learning chess or bridge, for example, as opposed to reaching for your usual Sunday crossword puzzle. Choose something with a social component that allows for interaction with others, and therefore greater stimulation. Finally, find something you find personally rewarding; the more engaged and interested you are in your new hobby, the more likely you’ll be to stick with it and perhaps even build on your skill set.

Up for the challenge? Here are our top three ideas for activities that boost skill levels and brain power:

  1. Learn a language. If you have an ear for accents or love to travel, learning a new language can be a fun and engaging way to push your brain into unchartered territory. And a recent study showed that seniors who learned a second language exhibited dementia symptoms almost five years later than their monolingual counterparts!
  2. Face the music. Whether you love to dance to the beat or play along, music-based education is one of the most vibrant ways to stimulate new pathways in the brain. Mastering new dance moves or learning to play a new instrument both require the sustained concentration and coordination so beneficial in boosting neurological blood flow.
  3. Get your hands dirty. We don’t mean this literally (although gardening is certainly a worthwhile hobby to consider!). If you like being creative with your hands, consider learning a task like wood working, knitting, or quilting – all require high levels of concentration and fine-motor skill building; plus, they offer the added benefit of a finished product to enjoy for yourself or give to a loved one.

For more ideas on activities to improve cognitive function, head to Psychology Today.