It was once believed that we are born with a certain number of brain cells, and that these slowly died off as we age. We know now that not only does the brain continually produce new neurons but that the connectivity between them becomes richer and more productive as we age, particularly if we stimulate the process through learning. And what we learn is important. Tasks which have no ‘end point’, where we can only get better with time and practise, can cause significant brain changes related to hearing, memory and mobility.
When it comes to communication, it has been shown that we can continuously grow our vocabulary and our capacity to make innovative associations between and among concepts. Similarly, reasoning and problem-solving skills tend to get sharper. There is no ‘end point’ in this kind of learning.
‘Open ended’ learning activities can include juggling, learning a language, playing an instrument, and even developing expertise in challenging games such as chess or bridge. Along with the ‘usual suspects’ (not smoking, keeping blood pressure, cholesterol and blood-sugar levels within recommended limits, eating a healthy diet, exercising and limiting alcohol consumption) we know now that open-ended learning is a potent preventative strategy against the onset and effects of dementia.