Not long ago, researchers thought the brain finished developing in adulthood. Lost brain cells wouldn’t be replaced. And “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” or so the story went. Cognitive decline was believed inevitable. But Science is revealing a more positive picture.
You can make new brain cells all the time. You can improve memory, learning, and thinking as you age thanks to “neuroplasticity”. But doing so isn’t a given.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the nervous system to alter and re-organize itself based on outside stimuli and internal input. This means the brain can form new connections, improve function, and even recover after injury (e.g., physical trauma, severe depression, epilepsy, or stroke).
The brain can adapt. It can learn and repair itself. And there’s no expiry date on this possibility. Neuroplasticity can be confirmed through imaging and substantial improvements in learning and other brain functions.
How Does Neuroplasticity Work?
The hippocampus continues to produce neurons through a process called “neurogenesis”. This can continue not only into adulthood but into advanced age. These “brain cells” move where they’re needed. They then build pathways in the brain that carry messages.
These messages could be anything from how to catch a ball to how to perform complicated mathematical calculations. When you learn something, you form a connection between these neurons. When you repeat that activity, you reinforce the connection.
That action can even become automatic through repetition. This is how professional athletes develop lightening fast reflexes. It’s how good and bad habits form.
That is why riding a bike feels second nature after you do it for a while. These neuron pathways are the physical structures that make learning possible. They form, dissolve, and can even re-route themselves.
How Can Ageing Impact Neuroplasticity?
As a general rule, younger people are more neuroplastic. But researchers aren’t sure if it’s due to the nature of the brain or the environment you live in. It’s probably both. But nature (natural aging) may not have as big a role as scientists once thought.
Just think about how much new stuff you had to learn every day from birth to around 25. As we age, we are no longer forced to learn constantly. You may have fewer new experiences. You have had the same friends for years. You don’t have any big exams to study for. You may not actively learn new things if you don’t have to.
You spend a lot of time re-enforcing the pathways you already have rather than forming new ones.
So, you’re not forming as many new pathways in the brain as you once were. This may instruct the brain to stop producing so many new neurons because you don’t need them. This makes it harder to learn new things as you age. You may feel stuck in your ways.
Improve Neuroplasticity At Any Age
These activities have been shown to keep the brain learning and growing into advanced age:
- Always find something new to learn.
- Play video games. Don’t stick with one kind. Continuously learn new games and become good at them.
- Seek out new experiences.
- Start a creative hobby.
- Meet new people and spend more time with the people you love.
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of whole plants, nuts, and fish.
- Get enough sleep.
- Exercise regularly.
- Practice good stress management.
- Actively replace bad habits with health-promoting ones.