Your brain needs exercise

Photo by Natalia Y

I sustained a concussion about 5 years ago, which challenged me and led to some big changes in my life.

Before my concussion, I took my brain for granted. It was only because of my concussion, and the months of recuperation, that I began to realize how much a person can do to contribute to a healthy brain. The actions we take to support our brain’s health – mental exercises, cognitive challenges, and social interaction build up and result in a brain’s cognitive reserves.  

Now, I’m not a doctor, but I will share with you some of the interesting things that I have come to learn about brain health. 

The first thing I learned is about neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to continue learning and growing throughout your life. It means your brain is able to adapt and change according to your experiences.

Scientists used to think that the brain stopped learning and growing after a certain age. For example, it was thought that it was impossible to learn a second language as an adult. This is just not true anymore.

According to a study out of d’Annunzio University of Chieti, Italy, a second language learning program, even late in life, can be considered a non-pharmacological treatment able to counteract cognitive aging along with the onset of dementia.

We now know that our brains have neuroplasticity and we can learn new concepts as older adults. Learning new skills takes repetition — lots of it. Think of repetition as the multiple attempts needed to create a neuron connection from one part of your brain to another, basically making a new pathway.

Learning a new language also stimulates a variety of cognitive abilities such as working memory, inductive reasoning, sound discrimination, speech segmentation, task switching, rule learning, and semantic memory.(

Learning a second language as an adult takes time, determination and practice. It doesn’t happen in a day, or a week, or a month. We may not catch on as quickly as a young person, but it is within our brain’s ability to make new pathways, so we know it is possible to learn anything, even a second language.

I took modern Greek classes for a year, prior to a trip to Greece. I was in a class of students half my age, all who were Greek themselves and spoke Greek. The other students were in the class just to brush up on their Greek grammar. I was learning Greek from scratch. Believe me, I was intimidated. Each week, on Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m., I would show up to class.

Each week, my teacher, Aleka, would ask me questions in Greek and my mind would go completely blank. Each week, the rest of the class would talk to each other in Greek, while I could barely remember how to say ‘yes’. Then, around the three-month mark, I showed up for class, Aleka asked me how I was in Greek — and a small miracle happened.

I understood the words she spoke to me and a Greek response formulated in my brain. Almost spontaneously the correct Greek words came out of my mouth. After weeks of repetition, a neural pathway had finally been created in my brain.  

When we learn a second language during adulthood: we apply neuroprotective effects, strengthen brain networks, and enhance cognitive reserve.

What is cognitive reserve? In basic terms, cognitive reserve is the thinking ability that is built up in our brain. This reserve is built up through mental activities, cognitive challenges, social interaction, and even unexpected life events, all of which can create new connections or stimulate existing connections. All of these situations require extra effort on the part of your brain, which can contribute to your brain’s cognitive reserves.

Why do we want cognitive reserve? There is research that indicates that people with more cognitive reserves may be better able to fend off or delay symptoms of degenerative brain changes. Changes that come along with brain diseases or dementia. 

So, if you’ve ever wanted to learn a second language, why not give it a shot? What do you have to lose? There’s certainly alot to gain. And remember, any progress made with learning a new language is slow and steady. Your brain will benefit just from the novelty of thinking differently. As with anything new, be patient, your brain needs time to absorb new information, once it does, you’ll know you’ve succeeded in creating a new pathway. 

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”