We talk a lot about healthy aging concerning our body, but what about our mind? Our current knowledge of strategies for promoting brain health is limited. However, research suggests two beneficial actions can help: 1) achieve at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity throughout the week to delay the onset of cognitive decline; and 2) eat five one-cup equivalent servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables daily. But beyond exercise and balanced eating, what else can you do? Embrace learning! Your brain has what’s known as plasticity, or the ability to learn and grow as you age. The process of learning new information can stimulate the growth of new brain cells and help prevent cognitive decline over time.

Learning new complex skills strengthens connections between parts of your brain. We know that brain exercises like puzzles and word games can improve the ability to remember and retrieve information. While this is important for brain health, we don’t see the long-term benefits from brain games as we do with learning something new and challenging.

A study, published in the journal Psychological Science, assigned one group of older adults to learn one or more practical skills (quilting, digital photography, or both) and another group to engage in social, but uncomplex activities like watching movies. The practical skills group spent an average of 15 hours per week for three months learning digital photography and/or a computer-based quilting program. Improvements in episodic memory, working memory, and reasoning ability were observed only in those who learned new skills. These improvements had staying power over a year from the study end! Those who learned the more challenging digital photography skills saw the greatest cognitive enhancements, so the more challenging the task, the better!

What can you do?

Find a new activity that will be challenging, complex, and require practice.

  • Learn another language – start small by dedicating 10-15 minutes a day to practice.
  • Try quilting! – find a local class and recruit a friend or co-worker to join you.
  • Learn how to knit or crochet – free YouTube video tutorials can be helpful.
  • Dedicate time to increase your ability in an activity you already enjoy.
  • Enroll in a college course, either on-site or online.