The growth journey of the brain and nervous system begins the moment a fetus is nestled in its mother’s womb. Some of our functions take shape the moment we enter the world, while others unfold during the various stages of life, propelling us into growth and development. Contemporary research indicates that continuous learning supports our brain function well into old age. Even as you read this article and I pen these words, our brain’s neural networks are dynamically evolving, forging new connections and pathways.
How Our Brains Learn
In the image below, you can see how the brain develops and how it is in constant change when it comes to learning.
As can be seen from the image, most of the development of the brain and neural structures is completed by the time we reach our twenties. In the past, with our limited knowledge in neuroscience, it was thought that neurons (nerve cells) in our brain died as we got older and there was no cell renewal.
However, studies in neurogenesis have changed the way we think about the brain. Neurogenesis is the process of producing nervous system cells, or neurons, from neural stem cells. For many years, researchers thought that neurogenesis was completed in a fully developed brain. However, as you can see in the above image, neurogenesis remains constant throughout life. This means we can form new synapses based on our experiences, and our Hippocampus, which is responsible for most of our memory, can remain active well into adulthood and old age.
Our Brains Change With Age
Myelin is a fatty substance that forms a protective sheath around nerve fibers, also known as axons, in the nervous system. It acts like insulation around an electrical wire, allowing nerve impulses to travel more efficiently along the nerve fibers.
As we age, the production of myelin tends to decrease, and existing myelin may deteriorate. This process is part of the natural aging of the brain and is associated with a decline in cognitive functions. The reduction in myelin can lead to slower transmission of nerve signals, impacting various cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and processing speed.
Learning and engaging in cognitive activities can have a positive impact on the aging brain. When you learn new things or engage in mentally stimulating activities, it can promote the formation of new connections between nerve cells, a process known as neuroplasticity. Learning and mental stimulation may also encourage an increase in myelin, as well as support the maintenance of existing myelin.
In other words, staying mentally active and continuously learning new things can help preserve and enhance cognitive function in the aging brain. This is one of the reasons why activities such as reading, solving puzzles, or learning a new skill are often recommended for maintaining cognitive health as we age. Keeping the brain active and engaged can contribute to overall brain health and potentially mitigate the effects of age-related decline in myelin and cognitive function.
What Does This Mean For You?
If you embrace continuous learning, and make sure you support your body with nutritious food, plenty of good quality sleep, and regular exercise that you enjoy, you can make a huge impact on your brain’s functioning, both now and in your later years. Consider learning a new language, starting to play a new musical instrument, doing academic studies, and seeing new places. You could even choose a skill that adds value to your career, further developing your skills and helping you sharpen your abilities. Upskilling might be just the thing standing between you and that long-awaited promotion or pay raise.
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- Image: Thompson, R. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2001). Developmental science and the media: Early brain development. American Psychologist, 56(1), 5–15. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.56.1.5
- Brain Book: Rita Carter
- Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience : Neil R. Carlson