Grow your brain

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Research in the area of brain 'plasticity' in recent decades confirms what Oxford Continuing Education students have known for nearly 140 years: learning new things is very, very good for you.

The adult brain can continue to develop though adulthood and into old age. That's the good news. And the bad news?

Actually, there is no bad news – but there is one qualifier: the adult brain can and does continue to develop at any age – but only when it is stimulated by learning new things. ‘Use it or lose it’ – the old adage applies. It is largely our choice, as individuals, whether we keep our brains sharp – or not.

Old dogma, new tricks

Typically, cognitive decline in humans starts between the ages of 20 and 30, and until the 1960s, the scientific community believed that a steady, mental decline from adulthood into old age was inevitable. We now know that this is inaccurate.

Advances in the field of neurology over the past several decades have clearly shown that a stimulated brain develops at any age. Faced with new stimuli, the brain forms new synaptic connections, generates new neurons, and creates neural pathways between brain cells. Research from Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT and elsewhere supports this.

A study published in The Lancet in July 2017, lists nine lifestyle changes that could prevent one-third of future dementia cases. Educational attainment and lifelong learning were among the most important. 

The Lancent study's lead author, Professor Gill Livingston of University College London, speaking to The Independent, said “It's now a common idea that education strengthens the brain, meaning you're less likely to develop dementia. But for a long time we thought that once you were an adult nothing changed in your brain, or if it did, it was only changing in a negative way. We now no longer think that.”

Popular opinion clings to the notion of unavoidably diminished capacity as we age. Partly this is due to physiology - brain cell loss does occur through adult life. But much of this misconception is based in cultural expectations.

Society is to blame?

People in mid career may grow complacent, or even resistant to developing new skills or exploring new ideas. We've always done it this way. At any age, we may indulge a tendency to go on ‘auto-pilot’ - navigating our lives using skills learned when we were younger.

At retirement age, the expectation is that we will slow down. Most people yearn for the day they can slow down and strive less – little knowing that this is probably the very worst thing they can do.

In a recent interview in Wired Magazine (cited below) Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, said:

"Like every organ in our bodies, the brain undergoes changes in how it performs. You see it in your muscles, your bones, your hair – and you feel it in your brain. That is not helped by people seeking comfort and a less demanding life when they are older. The fact is that the brain is still plastic even when they are 70 or 80 years old. It can still be optimised – but instead, many people unwittingly accelerate its deterioration."

Artists show the way

The possibility of being productive and creative throughout a long life has long been demonstrated by the artistic community. Japanese artist and printmaker Hokusai passed away in 1849 at the age of 89, with some of his best work created in his later years. Michelangelo far surpassed life expectency of his times, practising until his death, aged 89, in 1564. Monet lived and worked until 86, O’Keefe 98, Louise Bourgeois 99 and Titian 86. These talented people demonstrate that artistic genius can evolve and improve as we age.

The same applies to the rest of us: brains can flower and grow at any time of life, young or old – as long as one takes up the challenge to learn.

'Message of hope'

Alvaro Pascual-Leone is a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and one of the most-cited scientists in the field of brain plasticity. As part of an April 2017 piece for Wired Magazine (see below) he commented:

"It's true that we lose abilities as we get older, but I believe that most of that loss is driven by a lack of effort to sustain brain fitness. We're lazy, we don't get out of our comfort zones, we stop learning new things. The fact is that whatever you do, from activities to relationships to thoughts, ultimately enters the brain and affects it. But we can harness that property of the brain for our own benefit. Ultimately, it's a message of hope for people."

Lifelong learning is key

The research above will come as no surprise to Oxford’s adult learners

The 14,000+ Continuing Education students who partake of the more than one thousand courses offered here each year are spread across all decades of life. The youngest are just 18, while the oldest weighs in at 95 – part of an impressive cohort of students in their 80s and 90s who regularly take classes with us.

Genes, luck and a healthy lifestyle: all undoubtedly contribute to good quality of life. To this list now can be added the following: an abiding curiosity; a willingness to learn new things. This, in a nutshell, is what has defined Oxford Continuing Education students for nearly 140 years.