Everyone’s heard of the old saying, “use it or lose it”. It can refer to many things, but one of the more important references is to the brain. The brain is massive collection of brain cells, or neurons. These neurons are constantly communicating with each other. If a brain cell is no longer continually communicating with its neighbors, it will lose its function. This is the “cognitive reserve” theory. Meaning, a high-capacity brain – a brain with high cognitive reserve – has plenty of healthy brain cells and those brain cells maintain a lot of connections with other brain cells. A brain with low cognitive reserve has fewer connections and fewer healthy cells.
This is obviously important for many reasons, but one of the biggest is aging. You will experience cognitive decline as you get older. It happens to all of us. What’s important is to slow down or minimize the rate of decline for as long as possible. You do that by maintaining a high cognitive reserve going into old age, and then continually work to build new connections. Otherwise known as – NEVER STOP LEARNING!
When I was 50, I’d burned out badly in my first career (software engineering) and decided to make a change. I went back to school and got my RN/nursing license. I can 100% say that the rate at which I was able to absorb and memorize information was massively slower at 50 than it was when I was a young whippersnapper. That first six months of working on the hospital floor pushed my old brain to its limits. Rapid thinking, decision making, multitasking, and learning new skills daily left me mentally exhausted every night. But I also think it improved my ability to learn and think. Maybe not back at the level it was when I was 20, but certainly an improvement over when I started the process.
It’s never too late to start. Always be learning something. Read something other than Facebook posts. Take up a new hobby. Learn a new skill. Anything, all of it – just start exercising that brain. As a neuroscience RN, trust me – the various forms of dementia are one of the saddest ways you can finish out your life. It’s devastating for the patient and the family. While there’s many things that contribute to it, it is undisputed that starting out with the highest cognitive reserve possible will help stave off or at least significantly slow the progression of dementia.
My latest choice to keep exercising the brain (and the reason I’ve been absent here for a while), is learning video editing. It’s a high-end technical pursuit that has been super challenging. There are so many aspects to learn – editing/creative skills, color grading, audio mixing, and understanding how a video file is rendered and processed. The learning curve has been painfully slow, but is starting to ramp up. Each time I learn a new technique I feel like I’ve just left the gym. A little tired, but also a little bit stronger. Building those new neural connections daily.
You owe it to yourself and your family to exercise that brain. As Dean Wormer told Flounder, “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life son”. Listen to the Dean. Go learn something new today.
If you’re bored, check out what I’ve been slowly working on. Maybe it’ll inspire you to take up motorcycling!