Back To School
by Monte Schwartz
“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”—Albert Einstein.
It’s August. Time when students are heading back to colleges and universities. That bittersweet time when summer vacation ends and kids head back to schools of various sorts, from pre-school to high school.
Most of us know the value of learning and getting an education. The topic of education and how best to pursue it as a society even dominates much of our political discourse at the local, state, and national levels. The young are encouraged to study and take advantage of whatever educational opportunities that they have in order to maximize their employment opportunities and overall quality of life.
While formal education for most of us ends after high school or college, research indicates that we should continue to be lifelong learners, even into our senior years. Trite as it may seem, the brain is a muscle, and that old saying of “use it or lose it” definitely applies. Working the brain can help keep it sharp—and help to stave off cognitive decline.
Admittedly, taking the time to work that brain muscle can be just as difficult as taking the time to go to the gym to work out our other muscles. Life (work, family, etc.) tend to get in the way. Yet the rewards can be worth the effort.
Studies have found that people who report higher levels of intellectual activity can push back the appearance of memory problems. Their brains might actually be similar to those who are experiencing cognitive decline or signs of Alzheimer’s. However, mental activity can have a significant impact on the symptoms associated with memory loss. And as Dr. David Knopman, professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine noted, “a year or two delay in symptoms across the population . . . would be a huge effect.”
So what are some ways that we can work that brain muscle to keep it fit? It can be as simple as meaningful conversation. Other ideas include reading, enjoying a hobby, and playing games (yes, as well as being fun, there really is a benefit to bingo!).
Besides these and other enjoyable activities that we might naturally gravitate toward, experts note the importance of stretching ourselves with more challenging activities. According to Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.” Kind of like “no pain no gain” applied to the brain perhaps?
At any rate, some suggestions for more demanding activities include learning a foreign language, learning a new and more challenging skill or hobby, or taking something of interest at a local community college. Dr. Park even cited quilting as an example. “Quilting may not seem like a mentally challenging task. But if you’re a novice and you’re cutting out all these abstract shapes, it’s a very demanding and complex task.” The larger point is that learning a new skill helps to strengthen connections and entire networks in the brain.
So, back to school in some way shape or form for all of us of all ages! Many of us probably spent countless hours of our early, formal education wishing we were somewhere else. Now that we know how important, and enjoyable, it can be, it’s time to get back to learning and engaging our mind with a renewed sense of purpose.