Why is it good to keep stretching our brains?

Might learning a new language protect our brains

Recent studies suggest that being bilingual (i.e. being able to speaK two different languages fluently) helps protect our mental ability. For example a study published in 2011 analyzed CT scans. It found that people who speak more than one language were able to tolerate twice as much brain damage as people who spoke only one language before they exhibited symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Previous observational studies had found that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms by up to five years.

In the following year Dr. Ellen Bialystok of York University, Canada published a review of recent studies using both behavioural and neuroimaging (brain scanning) methods to examine the effects of bilingualism on cognition in adults. She reported, ‘"Our conclusion is that lifelong experience in managing attention to two languages reorganizes specific brain networks, creating a more effective basis for executive control and sustaining better cognitive performance throughout the lifespan."

In a further study, of 149 patients, published in 2014, Dr Bialystok reported that the bilingual patients were several years older before they experienced the symptoms of Alzheimer's. 

Could being a musician also help?

A small scale study published in 2011 researched seventy healthy older adults, comparing non musicians, low and high activity musicians. This preliminary study found that participants with at least 10 years of musical experience had better performance in nonverbal memory and executive processes in advanced age compared with non musicians. It concluded that high musical activity throughout life helps preserve cognitive functioning in old age.

Another small study, published in 2016, reported that music practice may increase resistance to cognitive ageing.

More research is clearly needed here but the fact that many professional musicians (players, conductors and composers) continue to play, conduct and perform well beyond conventional retirement ages suggests this may prove a fruitful area for research.

What about Meditation?

Mindfulness meditation practices (MMPs) are a type of meditation practice. A 2011 systematic review analysed 23 studies. It reported that mindfulness training could be associated with a number of improvements in the way the brain works, including memory and some executive functions (needed to control our behaviour). However, they also noted some limitations in the research they reviewed, together with some negative results - suggesting that further high quality studies are needed.

A review of published studies in 2016 reported that imaging studies (where the brain is scanned) suggest that meditation may protect the brain, possibly by reducing age related reduction in brain tissue. However, they caution that a cause and effect relationship hasn't yet been established.  

Can brain training help?

A study called the ACTIVE trial was carried out in the USA with 2,800 participants. It compared three groups (each of whom received a different type of brain training) with a control group (who received no brain training). Video and computer based brain training are also now available. A 2012 systematic review looked at 38 different studies published between 1984 and 2011. These studies suggest that brain training (whether paper or computer based) probably doesn’t harm but is likely to have modest effect and needs to cover different skills. Focusing on one specific skill isn’t enough.

However, a 2015 study, with 7,000 participants, reported more positive results. The Alzheimer's Society, which funded the research, reports that playing online games that challenge reasoning and memory skills can improve memory and reasoning skills - and even help older people with everyday tasks like cooking, shopping and managing personal finances.

In addition a small study (of 20 patients) reported in 2011, found that Sudoku based brain training appeared to improve the cognitive performance of patients with Parkinson's.

Conclusions

  • Learning a new skill which requires our brain to work in a different way (like learning a new language or a musical instrument) seems likely to protect our brain and keep it functioning effectively for longer.
  • Brain training (whether paper or computer based) probably doesn’t harm and may help improve memory and reasoning skills.

Delia Morick October 2013. Reviewed and updated by Laura Symes January 2017, Next Review Date January 2020