Culture

How Do You Slow Aging? Learn A New Language

Thu., Jun. 21, 2012 11:12 AM EST
by Terry Shropshire

Scientists and a youth-obsessed culture alike, have been frantically trying to figure out ways for decades — even centuries —to slow (and, yes, even stop) the aging process. What they haven’t realized until now is that they may have held the keys to that physics-defying feat all along.

You want to slow down the aging process considerably? Enlarge your cognitive reserve.

And how do you do that? Learn a new language.

The term “cognitive reserve” is used by scientists to describe the extent of the brain’s capacity to resist aging and degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

Neuroscientists at the University of California-San Diego have studied the brains of hundreds of elderly people to determine the reason some were able to resist the ravages of time and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, while others were not. Their findings suggest that the subjects whose abilities were less affected by Alzheimer’s were those with bigger brains and a greater number of neurons — suggestive evidence that keeping their brains active had built a bulwark against decline.

This is not just confined to the elderly. A new study suggests that mental activity can offset the effects not just of degenerative diseases, but of normal aging as well. In an article published this month in the Journal Neurobiology of Aging, Nina Kraus and her colleagues at Northwestern University measured the ability of subjects to respond quickly and accurately to sounds that they heard.

“Some of the study’s participants were young adults aged 32 and under, while others were between 46 and 65 years of age. Some were experienced musicians, and some were not. Kraus found that the middle-aged musicians, who’d spent decades honing their craft, outperformed not only their nonmusician peers, but also the nonmusicians many years their junior. The mental rigor required by the practice of music effectively acted as an antidote to aging, keeping their nervous systems youthful.”

It has been drilled into our heads from childhood the importance of stacking our chips during the course of our careers in order to prepare for our eventual retirements.

Accumulating mental capital — by learning to play an instrument, speak a foreign language or master any complex skill — works the same way.

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