By Ben Thomas
Some people look at aging as a sort of downward slope – a long, slow slide away from the excitement and energy of youth. But that’s not what the facts say.
Studies have found that people as old as 90 can build new muscle mass – and long after age 50, the brain’s wiring can keep adapting to become more efficient than ever before. It’s even possible to measurably expand your memory capacity as you grow older. All it takes is a bit of ongoing curiosity, and a willingness to learn new skills.
One of the top-recommended ways to keep your brain youthful is to learn a new language – but almost any form of learning has been shown to have benefits. Here are five surprising, scientifically proven ways in which ongoing 1:1 learning will boost your brain power, far into the later years of life.
1. It adds dimensions to your thinking
Years of studies continue to confirm what every lifelong learner already knows: multiple learning projects give you multiple perspectives. Certain problems seem to be easier to solve by thinking about them in English, while others seem to present their solutions more clearly when approached from a multilingual perspective. For example, a 2012 study found that bilingual people may perform arithmetic with significantly more accuracy than people who speak only one language. Along similar lines, learning will raise your awareness of the limitations of your own mind, and provide alternate ways of framing ideas – even when you’re just talking to yourself.
2. It strengthens your memory
People who practice lifelong learning consistently show better recall for shopping lists, driving directions, events – and above all, names for objects and concepts. This makes sense when you think about it. The greater the number of different ways you have to think about a thing or idea, the more ways your brain has to “get at” that idea when you’re grasping for the right word. And that principle seems to apply equally to descriptions of events, lists of instructions, and many related areas. In fact, lifelong learning also strengthens your episodic memories of events themselves – from last night’s dinner to a holiday party that happened decades ago.
3. It fights Alzheimer’s and dementia
Many studies have found that ongoing 1:1 learning increases communication between neighboring brain cells, and also strengthens the physical connectivity between those cells. The more connections your brain cells have with one another, the more resistant your brain as a whole will be to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. And that’s exactly what researchers have found. People who practice speaking multiple languages resist Alzheimer’s and dementia for several more years, on average, than people who speak only one.
4. It sharpens your decision-making and task-switching skills
Here’s a finding that might stun you: according to a 2012 study, lifelong learners make more rational financial decisions than other people do! In fact, ongoing learning has been widely shown to strengthen control over “wandering thoughts” – especially in aging people. It’s also been shown to sharpen your ability to switch between tasks, to aid your aptitude for juggling multiple tasks at once, and even to boost your confidence in the decisions you make. Some of these benefits sound almost too good to be true – but study after study keeps confirming them.
5. It makes you more focused and observant
Or, to put a finer point on it, people who keep learning new things seem to have more options in the ways they observe the world, and which aspects of the world they focus on. Russian speakers process more distinct shades of blue than English speakers do. People who speak Japanese tend to group objects differently than people who speak Korean. The list goes on and on, and the point is clear. A new area of learning is like a second lens on the world around you – giving you a whole other way of looking at life.
Beyond these brainy benefits, there are a few simpler reasons to continue learning throughout your life. It’s easy to get started with the wealth of 1:1 learning resources available online today. It’s one of the most fun ways to keep your brain active and engaged. Becoming an expert in new topics will not only expand your intellectual horizons – it can expand your social circle, too, introducing you to people, places and cultures you’d never have met in your old world. I guess it's time to find a teacher to learn 1:1 with!