Brain Health

Learn Like A Child To See Massive Gains In Cognition

Learn Like A Child To See Massive Gains In Cognition about undefined
Children soak up knowledge like a sponge. One reason they’re so successful at doing this in multiple different subject areas is because a child’s brain devours glucose at a rapid rate up until the age of ten, after which it slowly tapers off. The fact of the matter is the adult brain is a sluggish glucose absorber by comparison. However, new research has discovered for the first time that glucose absorption isn’t the whole story. In fact, older adults can boost brain performance by approaching learning like a school-age child. What does that mean? Tackling at least three new subjects at a time. Here’s the story… Once our education ends, so does academic learning. Our occupation, hobbies and other interests provide new opportunities, but after retirement, if we want to challenge the brain with new pursuits, we need to actively seek them out. It’s certainly worth doing because many studies show mental abilities can be elevated in older adulthood through different forms of cognitive training. Yet only a handful of studies exist where older adults are actively working with new enrichment materials and instructors. While short-term results are encouraging, these studies only focus on the learning of a single skill, and rarely look at evidence of benefit a year beyond the end of training. To address this knowledge gap, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, sought to find out if learning multiple new real-world skills simultaneously could improve and maintain cognitive abilities over the long term. The results are exciting to say the least.

Classes in Three Practical Subjects

The UC Riverside team conducted two studies with cognitively healthy seniors. The first study had six participants with an average age of 66—a very small sample size-- and the second had 27 with an average age of 69. The first study group undertook classes to learn Spanish, painting and using an iPad. Meanwhile, the second group had to choose at least three classes from a choice of Spanish, iPad learning, drawing, photography, and music composition. In both studies the volunteers effectively went back to school, having to attend UC Riverside and complete classwork and homework for approximately 15 hours a week for three months.

Memory Tests Showed Improved Recall

The research team administered cognitive tests before the start of the classes, halfway through, and after three months of attending the classes. Follow-up tests took place after the end of classes at three months, six months, and one year. The cognitive assessments tested working memory, cognitive control (the ability to adapt behaviors to continuously changing environments or information), and verbal episodic memory (the ability to recall a list of words and sequence of numbers). The findings surprised the researchers. One year after the study ended study subjects tested higher for effectively performing cognitive tasks than they did prior to the additional educational work. Consistently, the scores for cognitive functions increased on average by at least two to three times, sometimes more. “Remarkably, the cognitive scores increased to levels similar to undergraduates taking the same cognitive tests for the first time,” reported senior author Dr. Rachel Wu. “Our finding of continuous cognitive growth in older adulthood is unique because most studies show only maintenance of cognitive abilities or cognitive decline over time.”

Key Ingredient to Successful Learning

The key to the improvement, Dr. Wu surmises, is learning multiple tasks simultaneously in an encouraging environment, much like children experience in school. It’s a theory she and her colleagues first published back in 2017. It proposes that in a rich learning environment older adults can experience considerable immediate and long-term cognitive gains. To effectively improve memory and cognitive function, the research team said any senior educational intervention requires six key ingredients, including:
  1. Open-minded Input-driven learning: Completely new skills must be learned.
  2. Simultaneous Learning: Multiple skills are taught simultaneously.
  3. Individualized Scaffolding: Personalized help from instructors.
  4. Forgiving Environment: Adults are allowed to make mistakes, with no negative stereotypes about novel learning.
  5. Growth Mindset: A belief that one’s abilities can improve with effort.
  6. Committed Learning: Learners devote several hours per week to master the new skills..
The authors wrote in their current paper, published in the journal Aging and Mental Health in April, that “these six factors may account for a portion of the considerable cognitive gains during infancy to young adulthood.” Replicating this rich learning environment, they believe, will help older adults to maintain or even continue to develop their cognitive abilities—including strength of memory, mental recall, focus and attention.

Our Takeaway

If you have the time and resources to go back to school in your retirement, we think it’s a great idea. Remember, you don’t have to take a physics class—unless that’s your thing. You can learn a language, take an art class, even a computer class, just like the folks in the study. But if you’re not able to get inside the classroom, don’t despair. There are so many online learning opportunities through colleges and universities, as well as educational apps and even YouTube videos. Some are fee based and some are free. While educating yourself virtually was not part of the study, I think the researchers would agree that any type of consistent learning in a healthy environment is not going to hurt your memory and cognitive function. Give it a try… Best Regards, The Awakening From Alzheimer’s Team

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