Learning and Longevity: How to Challenge Your Body and Mind So You Stay Sharp and Live Longer
Despite what they say about old dogs learning a new tricks, keeping your brain and body active with novel challenges throughout your life has been linked with a lower risk of dementia and a boost in overall physical health. "It is never too late to learn something new," says Dr. Ronan Factora of Cleveland Clinic's Center for Geriatric Medicine. "Regardless of your level or your ability, taking up a new hobby to keep your brain stimulated, or an activity that forces you to learn new moves, provides benefits. The point is that there are no limits—either age or level of physical or cognitive activity—where benefit cannot be received when taking on something new." Ahead, discover a few new ways to challenge your body and mind to promote better cognition over time.
Learn new skills to forge new neural pathways.
When you force your brain to tackle a new challenge—whether it's jigsaw puzzles, Wordle, or recreating your grandmother's famous cherry pie—your brain forms new pathways that strengthen and protect it. "Learning new things is one of the best ways to maintain cognitive function and help reduce your risk of dementia," affirms Dr. Factora, noting that research has linked a lower risk of dementia with higher levels of education and literacy, learning new skills, and "working in cognitively challenging careers"—as well as with continuing an activity that allows for growth and improvement.
"Having a hobby that you can get better at over time—playing a musical instrument, doing a craft (such as knitting), or doing something creative, like painting or woodworking—also has protective effects, because you are always challenging yourself to get better with practice," shares Dr. Factora. "All of these activities lead your brain to make new connections as the learning takes place, giving your brain 'reserve' to help overcome any injury or damage that can occur to it over time, such as a stroke or amyloid deposition in Alzheimer's disease."
Improve your physical wellness while you boost your brain health.
Choosing a new activity that raises your heart rate or challenges your muscles offers the added benefit of improving your overall physical health—which is also associated with positive aging outcomes. "Participating in cognitive activities are good for the brain, but there are some activities where you have to learn new things while using your body; in that circumstance, you improve your brain health and your body health," says Dr. Factora, who uses pickleball and ballroom dancing as examples. "Both involve learning new rules and skills, training your body to move appropriately, and then practicing or playing to try out what you have learned and get better over time. Keeping your body moving helps maintain your mobility, balance, and muscle tone—which are all important to preserve physical function as you age."
Know that a happy life is a longer one.
Whether you're focused on brain health, physical fitness, or both, the most important part of picking up a new activity is finding one that you like: Not only will it be easier to commit to, but you'll also improve your overall happiness, mood, and mental health. "One does not want to spend most of the day sitting down and watching television—keep your body and brain moving and stimulated to stave off changes related to aging and the negative effects of being sedentary," notes Dr. Factora. "It's good to take up activities that make you learn and use your cognition, and move to keep your body in shape; there are benefits for each in one's overall health. The key point is to try and do something that you enjoy and will continue to want to do."