Want to Feel Younger? Learn Something New

I don’t think it is any surprise that most boomers are looking for ways to feel younger these days.  Most of us tend to focus on physical health as a means to stay active and mobile.  While that is important, it is not the whole picture.  A healthy, active body is great but you won’t get the same benefit from it if you are menbraintally feeling older than your years.  Like the muscles in the body, the same holds true for the brain.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.

As we grow up, we take learning for granted.  We go to school, we learn new things about our world everyday.  It is just part of growing up and it helps to strengthen all the neural pathways of the brain.  Constant education keeps the brain firing on all cylinders.  As we reach adulthood, some of us continue to learn by attending a college or university.  Some of us enter a vocational program to continue education.  Some of us  chose the school of life and the lessons it has to impart.  Whatever we chose, it is all new, challenging, and keeps our mental acuity  strong and clear.  We keep learning.

However, as we settle into our lives, something odd happens.  Over time the educational opportunities handed to us begin to diminish.  We become comfortable in our jobs and in our relationships.  At some point learning new skills doesn’t seem that exciting or important.  We reach a certain level of success or perhaps just try to keep heads above water.  There isn’t any time or interest to learn new things.  We are content to move along with the status quo, deciding that challenging ourselves is best left to those just starting the climb.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the reasons some otherwise healthy boomers begin to feel a mental fog is related the fact that they stop forging new neural pathways.  Once our behaviors enter a repetitive pattern, the brain does not have to work as hard as when faced with new information.  It doesn’t have as much to analyze and doesn’t have to store as much information.  Basically, all the heavy lifting has already been done so the brain can take a vacation.  If not challenged,  the areas of the brain dealing with higher function can lose clarity and reaction time.  The result can be the mental fog that so many people seem to be battling these days.  It is this fog that contributes to feeling older than your years.

I’m not suggesting that  everyone should run out and enroll in the local community college.  There are lots of ways to learn new things.  Sometimes it can be as simple as researching something on the internet.  You don’t even have to leave the house (or even get off the couch thanks to tablets) to learn about a subject that interests you.  If you don’t like to read,  try an audiobook.  With today’s technology, there are countless ways to gain information.

Perhaps you aren’t interested in learning about new subjects.  No problem there. Try picking up a new skill.  Maybe you have always wanted to learn to play the piano.  Well, there’s an app for that.  A friend of mine loves to learn new styles of painting–watercolor, Japanese brushstrokes–whatever.  She is always up for the challenge, and she just celebrated her seventieth birthday yesterday.

We are lucky enough to live in a time when online learning is exploding.  Universities offer online extension classes to hone business skills or open new career possibilities.  Of course, most of these are pricey, but some offer classes for free, simply for people who have a hunger for knowledge.   These are known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.  It is an opportunity to take higher eduction courses without the stress of passing tests or enrolling in a college or university.  It is learning for learning’s sake in its purest form.

Some people say that they learn new things while reading for pleasure.  That is true–we can always gain new ideas and enjoyment from fiction.  I have been reading fiction for years and usually feel like I have picked up something new or at least thought about something in a different way after finishing a novel.  However, a recent study by Stanford neurobiologists shows a definite shift in brain activity patterns when reading for pleasure versus reading for critical reasons.  Casual reading activates pleasure centers.  Critical reading causes increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions.  This is the area of the brain that helps you divide attention, use your working memory and generally controls your brainpower.  It is also plays a key role in decision-making.

This is just one study in a growing body of research that indicates continued education–using critical thought processes to learn new information or skills–keeps the brain active and youthful.  Like a muscle, the more you train the cognitive portions of the brain, the stronger they become.   The stronger the cognitive function, the quicker the brain reacts.   In essence,  stronger cognitive behavior increases mental power and clarity.   And those are qualities that are associated with youth.

So the next time your mind is feeling a little sluggish and cloudy, try learning something new.  Find something that interests you and learn everything you can about it.

Train your mind the same way you train your body.  You will be surprised at how much younger you will feel.

Are you a life-long learner?  When was the last time you picked up a new skill or hobby?  I’d love to hear about it.