Lifelong Learning: Protecting Your Brain from Cognitive Decline

Have you ever thought about what you might do to keep your brain from cognitive decline and dementia? In a world where people are living longer than ever, maintaining cognitive health has become increasingly important. While genetics do play a role, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that our lifestyle choices have a significant impact on brain health. Engaging in lifelong learning is one of the most effective strategies to keep our brains sharp and resilient against the ravages of time.

From the moment we are born, our brains are hard at work, making millions of connections that allow us to learn and adapt. This intense period of growth slows down as we age, but it never truly stops. Just as physical exercise is essential for keeping our bodies strong and healthy, mental exercises are crucial for maintaining brain function. Lifelong learning can take many forms, from formal education and professional development to hobbies, social activities, and even everyday challenges that push us out of our comfort zones.

In this blog, we will explore the importance of lifelong learning and how it helps in preventing cognitive decline. We will delve into the fascinating processes of brain development and neuroplasticity, and discuss practical steps you can take to keep your brain active and healthy. 

Whether it’s picking up a new hobby, learning a new language, or simply staying curious about the world around you, there are numerous ways to give your brain the workout it needs. Let’s dive in and discover how you can protect your most vital organ and ensure a long, healthy, and cognitively rich life.

The Importance of Lifelong Learning

We learn throughout our lives, and there is no doubt about it. However, to keep our brains healthy and to prevent cognitive decline and dementia, we need to make new connections within our brains throughout our lives. In this blog post, we will continue to explain why a healthy lifestyle is important for your health and longevity

When you were two years old, your brain was a super connection-making machine, creating up to 1 million new connections between neurons—the nerve cells in your brain—every second.

Why did it need to make so many new neuro connections? Your brain was only about 25 percent formed when you were born. During the next two years, it would make billions of connections. By the time you were two, it was 80% formed, and by the time you were five, it was 90%. It would then take the next 20 years to complete its full development.

You might wonder why my brain needs to continue making more neuro-connections if it was fully formed when I was 25.

Does learning prevent cognitive decline?

Yes, learning plays a significant role in preventing cognitive decline. Engaging in continuous learning stimulates the brain, encouraging the formation of new neural connections and enhancing neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself. This mental stimulation can help maintain and even improve cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. While you brain was fully formed at 25 your life experiences continue to create new connections and interconnections within your brain, thus enriching your life.  

Activities that challenge the brain and keep an agile brain, such as learning a new language, playing an instrument, or acquiring new skills, have been shown to delay the onset of dementia and other age-related cognitive impairments. By keeping the brain active and engaged, lifelong learning helps to preserve cognitive health and improve overall quality of life as we age.


Does learning prevent cognitive decline?

Yes, learning plays a significant role in preventing cognitive decline. Engaging in continuous learning stimulates the brain, encouraging the formation of new neural connections and enhancing neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself. This mental stimulation can help maintain and even improve cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.

Brain Development and Neuroplasticity

Once we became adults, we realized we didn’t need to make as new connections in part because our brain was structurally fully developed. During our childhood the massive amount of connections we created was primarily for the growth and development of the brains physical structure.  As our brain reached the teenage years it created a more organized and efficient brain by pruning away many of the connections it made earlier and replaced them with connection that would be needed and used throughout our lives.  Once our brain reached it’s structural maturity around the age of 25 it continues to create new neuro-connections based on the experiences throughout our life. 

It then continues to make new connections because that is how we learn new material, and incorporate the lessons and experiences into the knowledge base we use for making decisions, building resilience, expressing empathy, and so much more.  It is what gives us a rich and fulfilling life experience.   

Lifelong learning is the best way to keep your brain in shape making connections. When we experience and learn new things, we take our brains to the mental workout gym and give them the exercise they need to stay healthy.

A healthy brain is critical to a long healthspan, not just a long lifespan. Remember, a long lifespan is how long your body lives. A long health span is how healthy your body and especially your brain are throughout your lifespan. I know I don’t want to spend the last 10 years or more of my life sitting in a rocking chair watching the world instead of being a part of the world.

Mental Workouts: Exercise for the Brain

The adult brain makes anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 new connections every second. Those connections come from all the input from our environment. Everything we think, see, hear, smell, and do creates new connections. Research has shown that one of the best ways to help our brain create the connections we need to stay mentally sharp and focused is by learning a foreign language or playing a musical instrument.

I would like to learn Spanish better, as many of my patients in the ER are primarily Spanish-speaking. However, learning to play an instrument is not even on my bucket list. Many of us would like to learn one, if not both, of these skills. However, our lives are so busy, and I get it. We may not have the time to dedicate to playing a musical instrument or learning a foreign language.

Digital Literacy

Digital Literacy: The Language of the Digital Age

Maybe you don’t have the time to learn a foreign language or to learn to play a musical instrument, or maybe this isn’t of interest to you. I have another option for you to give your brain a mental workout.  There is what I think may be the most important second language you can learn and become proficient at in a relatively short time. This is the language of our digital age. If you struggle to use digital devices—your phone, smart TV, and computer—you might want to consider becoming more digitally literate. What do I mean by becoming more digitally literate?

We now live in a digital age with a whole new language somewhat foreign to many seniors and even some younger adults.   I include myself here. Even though I have the basic skills and knowledge to navigate a digital world, I still get stuck when something doesn’t work how I want it to. When my laptop doesn’t connect to the internet, or the app on my phone isn’t working how I want it to. I don’t have the technical knowledge to troubleshoot many problems I encounter while using my screens.

Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

Gen Z, the generation of kids born from 1997 to 2012, is the first generation of digital natives. They were born into the digital age, connected through digital devices, and engaged through social media. They grow up using and learning that digital language as their second “native tongue.” However, many people in their 70s, 80s, or even in their 50s or 60s don’t know how to speak and use the language of our digital world. Older people in their 90s, or like my mom, who is now 101, are lost when using most digital devices. My mom has a smartphone but struggles to use it.

I smile when she asks why they don’t make phones easier to use. When I ask her what the easy-to-use phone was she misses most, she tells me it was her Princess phone. Do you remember the Princess phones of the 1970s? She asks why she can’t just dial a phone number. Why must she “unlock” her phone to make a call? We live in an age where even a hearing aid now requires some degree of digital literacy to utilize all of its capabilities and functions fully.

Becoming Digitally Literate

If you want to learn how to navigate our digital world better, there are many resources. Some places to begin your search are your local library, a community college, a community center, a senior center, and possibly churches and civic organizations.

If you already have some basic computer skills but want to increase your digital knowledge, there are many free online courses. For seniors the AARP (American Association of Retired People) website is a great resource for courses for seniors. One of my go-to places for information about a specific problem is YouTube. When all else fails, ask a kid. Seriously, my grandkids are great resources for digital questions.

Digital Literacy for elders

Navigating Digital Patient Portals

As a physician, one of the areas that I think is critical for seniors to become digitally literate is to learn how to navigate their digital patient portal. Unfortunately, I frequently have patients in the ER who don’t know how to log in and use their digital patient portal. I can’t tell you how many times I take care of a patient in my emergency department, and they say to me, “Oh, I had a CAT scan done last week,” or “I went to my doctor, and they did all these lab tests a few days ago.”

I’ll ask them, “Can you go to your patient portal and look up the results of that CAT scan or those lab tests? Would you be willing to share the results with me so I can better care for you?” They will help me better understand what’s going on and how I can best help you.

Unfortunately, they often reply that they don’t know how to access their digital patient portal. Patients often know about the digital portal containing their digital medical record, but they’ve never accessed it. Or if they accessed it, it was a long time ago. Usually, that access was with the help of somebody else.

Now, they no longer remember how to access their records and latest reports. I’ve also noticed that even if they can log in to their portal, they don’t know how to find the available information.

I work the overnight shift in the ER. This means that most often, the doctor’s offices and clinics are closed, and all the other places where those digital records exist are closed, and I don’t have access to them. I can’t pick up the phone and make a call on behalf of my patients. This isn’t always the case. Often, when I am taking care of a younger patient, especially my patients in their 20s and 30s, they are able to access their medical records.

They can pull up and share those records that are pertinent and important for their care. Knowledge of the latest chest x-ray or EKG can prevent me from repeating tests. Often, these tests are uncomfortable, and sometimes, they involve a significant amount of radiation, as in the case of a CT scan.

Having that access helps us work together to get them feeling better quicker. It also ensures that they get the care they need and deserve. If you don’t know how to access your digital medical records, contact your doctor, clinic, or hospital and ask for help.


How can you protect your brain from cognitive decline?

Protecting your brain from cognitive decline involves adopting a multifaceted approach that includes mental, physical, and lifestyle activities. Engage in lifelong learning by challenging your mind with new skills, hobbies, and knowledge. Activities such as reading, puzzles, learning a new language, or playing a musical instrument can help stimulate your brain and promote neuroplasticity.

My 6 pillars for health and longevity will help you protect your brain from cognitive decline.  

  1. Lifelong learning.
  2. Physical exercise which is also crucial as it increases blood flow to the brain and supports overall brain health. 
  3. Eating a balanced diet rich in brain-healthy nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins. 
  4. Ensure you get enough sleep and the quality of your sleep is good.  
  5. Manage stress effectively through mindfulness and other activities. 
  6. Maintain strong social connections. 

By adopting these habits, you can significantly reduce the risk of cognitive decline and enjoy a healthier, more vibrant brain throughout your life

You can start today and protect your brain against cognitive decline and loss of brain cells. Increase neuroplasticity and enjoy a long health span. Start by looking at an area in which you would like to increase your learning. It doesn’t have to be around digital learning. Dedicating as little as one hour a week to your brain’s healthy future helps ensure your long health span.

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