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Can Learning New Skills Prevent Dementia?

Updated December 13, 2018

Leacey Brown

SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist

Much of what we know about the brain we have learned in the past few decades. Michael C. Patterson and Roger Anunsen of “MindRamp Consulting” have compiled much of the research on brain health and developed an easy to follow model on how we can prevent dementia and memory loss. This article is the first in a series that will describe the different pieces of brain health that Patterson and Anunsen call “cog wheels”. It is important to note that people can still develop the disease, even if they engage in all the behaviors known to protect against dementia and memory loss.

The cog wheels include:

  • Physical Exercise and Movement
  • Mental Stimulation
  • Stress Management
  • Social Engagement
  • Sleep and Mental Rest
  • Diet and Nutrition
  • Spirituality and Purpose.

We have heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. It’s suggests that learning takes place primarily during the younger years of life. Once a person reaches a certain age, they are no longer capable of learning new skills. Fortunately, research does not support this common saying. What’s more, research on brain health tells us that adults who problem solve and learn new skills are engaging in behaviors shown to protect against dementia and memory loss. Patteron and Anunsen refer to this as the “mental stimulation” cog wheel. This article will be the first in our series on brain health.

Mental stimulation involves learning new skills or modifying our ways of thinking. Below is a list of tips to promote brain health though mental stimulation

  • Engage in a variety of activities to challenge the brain
  • Be creative and solve problems
  • Embrace novelty and change and avoid over-reliance on routines
  • Reduce negative thinking and close-mindedness,

Neuroplasticity is the scientific terms used to describe the process of maintaining, repairing, and creating new neural connections in the brain. To reduce our risk of developing memory loss research tells us that we need to engage in a variety of activities that provide mental stimulation. The key is variety. Engaging in one single activity will maintain a very limited set of neural connections. For example, completing cross words puzzles or word searches primarily strengthens neural connections related to words and language. These are good activities, but real and lasting neural connection growth emerges from learning new skills. For example, participating in a community education classes to learn a new skill such as ceramics making or wood working a few times a month and perhaps a foreign language class at another time during the month.

Traditionally when we think of creativity we think of painting and other forms of art. Creativity extends beyond art into the realm of anything that we picture in our brains and then use our hands and tools to bring to the real world. Creativity requires us to solve problems. I am not skilled in the area of art. My creativity comes from my ability to build practical things. For example, I built a garden box in my yard. Not only did I create the garden box, I also learned additional skills of using power tools and measuring the wood to the correct length.

Novelty and change activate new neural pathways in a brain. When we do the same things the same way every day, we are only strengthening existing pathways in our brain. This could be over-reliance on routine. Varying your routine doesn’t involve drastic changes. Perhaps some days you read the morning paper at the kitchen table and other days you read it out on the deck. Maybe even sometimes, you go down to a local restaurant to read your paper and have breakfast. These little deviations add novelty and change to your life.

Negative thinking and close-mindedness present unique challenges. In the same way that engaging in cross words puzzles over and over strengthens limited neural connections, these ways of thinking do the same thing. While it may not be as simple as telling ourselves to not think that way, science tells us we can conquer these habits. There are situations where a trained professional can offer additional tips and tricks for managing ways of thinking that increase our risk of developing memory loss, but there are some things you can try on your own.

To modify negative thinking, I keep a journal where I write three things I am thankful for every day. It serves to remind of my good fortune even when times are tough. For example, after the October Blizzard of 2013, I ended up with a piece of chain in my tire. I heard the tell-tale sign of hissing air when I got out of my car at home. I was happy that I heard the noise and realized what was happening, instead of finding it the next day when I was going on vacation!

Being closed-minded means that a person is not willing to entertain an idea or method of doing something that is different. An open-mind allows a person to evaluate the new ideas or methods of doing things. It does not mean to accept every new idea as the truth. It is a process of weighing evidence before deciding to reject or accept an idea or way of doing something. It is the delay of judgement. For example, perhaps you have always used the trimmer then mowed the lawn and someone suggests reversing the order (mow then trim). A person with a closed mind will reject the suggestion without even considering the merits of the alternative order (e.g. being able to trim only what the mower missed).

Overall, memory loss is not just a side effect of old age, rather it is the result of disease or trauma. You can still develop the disease, even you engage in all the behaviors known to protect against dementia and memory loss. However, for adequate brain health, mental stimulation may be helpful to maintain a healthy brain and prevent dementia. Go and try learning a new skill – not only will it help your brain, but it will help you in other facets of your life.