Stop changing your mind and start changing your brain
Welcome to brain city, where mental stimulation is the foundation, and neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve are the fast lanes to ageing well.
Ready to power up your brain?
Your brain is constantly changing, and after this coaching article, you’ll know how to harness this natural phenomenon.
Welcome to brain city
Picture your brain as a city of connecting roads and fast lanes.
If your brain wants to send a signal from one end to the other end, it can usually just take the fast lane.
But what happens when the fast lane is blocked? Now it needs to find a new route.
Fortunately, your brain has a baked-in ability to change and create new routes to ensure signals can still reach their destination. This is called neuroplasticity.
To put it simply, neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt to different experiences and stimuli. For example, when you learn something new, your brain will grow new neural networks.
This is known as neurogenesis and relates to the creation of new brain cells known as neurons.
There are also different types of neuroplasticity.
When you stimulate your brain in a new and challenging way, your brain’s physical structure changes and this is known as structural plasticity.
Another type of neuroplasticity is functional plasticity. This describes your brain’s ability to reassign a given function from a damaged area to an undamaged area.
A healthy brain usually has plenty of alternative routes, off-ramps and suburban backroads (known in neuroscience as neural pathways) to get signals around the brain. This is known as cognitive reserve.
The more ways your brain has to get signals from point A to point B, the greater resilience your brain has to damage.
Scientists think that one of the reasons some people are less likely than others to experience cognitive decline s as they age is differences in cognitive reserve. It is possible that some people deal better with getting older due to them having a greater cognitive reserve to deal with all of the brain changes and losses that come from age.
This is one of the most substantial differences between a healthy and unhealthy brain, which is why we’re so passionate about the subject here at Five Lives.
You might even be able to think of two elderly people of a similar age who differ significantly in their ability to think, understand, reason and make decisions.
Road works ahead!
Just as our brain city can build new roads, it also has the ability to get rid of old roads that are no longer in use.
This concept is known as “use it or lose it”.
As we learned in the brain health coaching articles, this is similar to your brain deleting unwanted programs from your computer to boost its processing speed and efficiency.
Research suggests that while the brain is able to produce new cells in the hippocampus (the main area related to memory), especially after exercise, those cells will only last for one week unless you use your brain for some kind of effortful learning activity. If used within one week, they’ll become part of your brain’s circuitry.
The key to keeping those new brain cells and pathways alive is using them in effortful learning.
This means engaging in any mental stimulation that involves concentration over an extended period.
But what does this have to do with your risk of dementia?
Are you intellectually rich?
Scientists studied close to two thousand people and found that those that participated in more cognitive activities that stimulated and challenged their brain in mid-to-late life:
- Had better memories
- Learned things faster
- Processed new information more rapidly
Participating in these mentally stimulating activities is known as lifetime intellectual enrichment, which might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and dementia.
These mentally stimulating activities built up their cognitive reserve, which acted as a safety net for their brain even as they aged.
Those who didn’t participate in as many challenging activities were more likely to lose their cognitive reserve and, therefore, were more susceptible to cognitive decline.
This decline has been directly linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The power of learning and mentally challenging yourself can be seen in studies where those who pursued higher education and more intellectually challenging occupations had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
This has nothing to do with intelligence or IQ scores but rather the reduced risk associated with prioritising learning, stimulating one’s brain and undertaking challenging tasks and hobbies.
Keep challenging the different parts of your brain in new and exciting ways because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
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