When we think of the month of June, we think of Father’s Day, graduations and brides. There’s also the end of the spring school term – whew, done with that. It is a month that ends the school year with light-hearted promises of the summer to come.
But in reality, is school really done? No, I don’t mean summer courses or the need to catch up. Rather, my focus is on the need for lifelong learning. As we look at the concepts of healthy aging, one of the lessons we have learned is that healthy brain aging depends upon ongoing learning. Our brains do better as we increase the connectivity of our neurons and cells when we learn something new. And as we continue to learn, continue to grow our brains, we slow the process of cognitive decline, decreasing the risk of dementia.
Studies have shown that whether you learn a new language or a new dance step, there is an ongoing benefit in the act of learning. We know that such education lowers the risk of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, “the quality and quantity of education that protects against dementia remains to be clarified.” But it is clear, however, that there is a protective effect with learning, and especially new learning.
Brain health remains a focal point for healthy aging. I have previously written about social connectedness and the need for social interaction. Certainly, it is widely accepted that healthy diet and exercise is important with respect to bringing nutrients to the brain. Blood flow remains a prime issue, as we need the oxygen and those nutrients without interruption.
So how does new learning and lifelong learning actually impact brain health? Well, as mentioned, mental stimulation may enhance the connectivity between cells and essentially help to build brain reserve, which, in turn, increases neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt. At some future point, when faced with trauma or injury, having greater reserve and being more adaptable may delay the onset of dementia symptoms or help manage that injury in a better way.
In 2011, Deborah Barnes and Kristine Yaffe published research in the Lancet Neurology journal looking at risk factors and the reduction of dementia. When they looked at the risk factors that impacted outcome and mental stimulation, learning new things had a significant effect. Other risk factors may be more familiar, such as the risk of smoking. We also now know that depression doubles the risk of dementia, a result that may be partially due to social withdrawal, as well as compounding risks such as sedentary behaviour and poor eating.
So let’s remain active, eat a healthy diet, quit smoking and plan our days to include challenges and new adventures, learning and growing. Let’s celebrate June with our fathers and families, and with brides and grooms. And though the school year may be done, with students finishing their spring term and possibly graduating, the learning is just beginning.
To learn more about dementia, aging and brain health, you may want to check out the Women’s Brain Health Initiative, a non-profit organization at the forefront of education supporting research in this area. Their website is womensbrainhealth.org