by Buck Institute

Lifelong Learning for Lifelong Health

By Claire Spafford, Science Educator

When am I ever going to need the Pythagorean Theorem in real life? Who CARES when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed? In school, we all have moments when we question the value of our education. One of the great things about getting older is that we know better! Lifelong learning is a joyful way to pursue our interests, develop new skills, and gather useful information. It is also a great way to engage in healthy aging.

We have just launched our inaugural Lifelong Learning course on the Biology of Aging here at the Buck, but more on that later. First, let’s take this opportunity to dig into the benefits of lifelong learning as we age.

Learning changes the brain at a very fundamental level. Everything we learn is encoded as new connections, called synapses, between neurons in the brain. There is evidence that neurons start forming new synapses within a few hours of trying something new. Our ability to maintain these synapses, build new ones, and prune unneeded ones is called neuroplasticity. Neuroscience research consistently reveals that our brains are much more “plastic” than we ever realized. They are constantly changing and adapting to new circumstances and to incorporate new information. The more we use a new piece of information, the more firmly it is wired into our brains. For example, London cab drivers have to memorize a map of the city before they are licensed. There are classic studies showing that the hippocampus, which stores memories, is larger in licensed London cab drivers than in those who don’t use and maintain this quantity of information. London cab drivers physically change their brains by incorporating the map into their memories. The converse is also true—unless you regularly refer to the Treaty of Utrecht, you probably don’t remember that it was signed in 1713. Our brains very efficiently prune synapses that aren’t regularly used. This helps our energy-hungry brains use resources on only the most important things, like how to make our morning coffee.

Keeping our brains plastic through exposure to new experiences keeps them primed to adapt to the changes that come with aging. There are well-characterized declines in some aspects of cognition over time, though there are also some improvements, for example in overall vocabulary. Is it possible to modulate this process to enhance the positive changes that come with time, and to limit the negative ones? Our fantastic plastic brains are ready to help! The precise mechanism is not yet well understood, and is certainly complex, but there is abundant evidence that maintaining a “cognitively rich environment’ is associated with enhanced cognition over time. For example, one study compared older adults who attended classes at the University of the 3rd Age to a similar group of older adults who did not attend classes. The study found that the adults who took courses had a lower risk of depression, better memory functioning, and better general health awareness. Of particular relevance to our mission at the Buck, a recent study found that health literacy seems to promote better health in older adults. And finally, there is some data to suggest that enhanced cognitive engagement in older adults might delay the onset of cognitive impairments and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.

It is important to distinguish between brain training and ongoing cognitive engagement. There has been a recent trend of apps with puzzles, games, and quizzes that claim to “train your brain” to improve cognitive function. Recent evidence suggests that, while practicing these games does help you get better at these games, there doesn’t seem to be an overall cognitive benefit—the skills don’t transfer to other areas of brain performance. This shouldn’t be a surprise—it is hard to find an educator who believes that memorizing chemical formulas makes students smarter chemists. This also makes sense from a neuroplasticity perspective. Performing similar tasks again and again will certainly build new synapses, but the new connections are limited because they involve only a small portion of the brain in a very specific and limited way. You can think of it like treading a groove by pacing up and down the same hallway. On the other hand, engaging in interesting problems, developing flexible strategies, and interacting with other people helps a brain build a rich network of synapses and supports the plasticity necessary to respond to new challenges.

There is a lot more to learn about how cognitive engagement can help the aging brain. However, the high-level consensus from the neuroscience research community to the AARP is that engaging in intellectually stimulating activities has beneficial effects and is an important part of healthy aging, just like diet and exercise.

As a pioneer in the Biology of Aging, the Buck is focused on understanding the very core cellular mechanisms that underlie the connection between aging and disease. Everyone here is invested in healthy aging, but our results from model organisms like fruit flies and worms are cutting-edge and preclinical. So, we want to contribute further to healthy aging today by developing content that will engage your brain with fascinating scientific problems and get you excited about your own healthy aging journey. Our inaugural class starts this month and is already fully subscribed, but we are excited to offer this course again in the fall and are working to expand what we offer. In the meantime, keep your brain plastic by keeping up with this blog, signing up for our newsletter, or coming to visit us on a free tour.

Science is showing that while chronological aging is inevitable, biological aging is malleable. There's a part of it that you can fight, and we are getting closer and closer to winning that fight.

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