It’s Never Too Late to Learn & Sharpen Your Brain

Many of us learned a skill as a child whether playing piano or singing, as Barbara and Margaret did respectively, or how to sew, needlepoint, knit, paint, play chess, do puzzles, dance, put together model trains and so on. Maybe as we got older new interests surfaced (such as boys, rock music and swing dancing), so we dropped our interest in some of our childhood pursuits. 

Today, we often think, why not pick up that skill again? It’s good for the brain, we’ve read. 

Margaret’s mother always said that the brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised. She was prescient for scientific evidence bears this out. Experts say it helps the aging brain to stay alert by learning a new skill or going back to an old one. Master several and you might activate multiple parts of your brain. At the same time, it’s important to take care of your heart since there’s a definite correlation between those two organs, the experts add. 

What better time to do so than now when we have more time and before we’re too old? 

As we age, many of us have too much time on our hands. Ho hum. So, why not make good use of time and our hands, brains and heart to learn a new skill or pick up an old one. Some pick up bridge and play in a weekly game; others prefer to do so with fellow mahjong players or get out in the fresh air and on a pickleball court. All these activities offer the possibility of camaraderie and chitchat in between points. Who wins, hopefully, isn’t as important as it used to be, but not in all cases. 

Some endeavors are solitary such as those who do Wordle on their own and sometimes as soon as they wake up in the morning and then posting their best results on FB. Some go for a crossword puzzle in their daily newspaper, and if it’s the New York Times they progress from Monday to Sunday, finding the puzzle gets harder as the week goes on. This can lead to great frustration by the end of the week, but when Monday comes and the puzzle is easier, we’re hooked again for the week. 

For others who crave a group activity, there are many options. Love books? Why not join a book club and discuss them with other members. Or learn about wines of different regions and sign up for a wine club. This requires intense concentration. Not interested in book clubs or you consider learning about wine a yawn, do you really care what the Rhone region produced versus Bordeaux and that a sparkling wine to be called “champagne” has to be made in that region of France? Or try documentaries or series on TV or the movies. What about an investment club if you have an instinct and passion for selecting the right stocks and bonds? There are TV and movie groups as well, especially for old movie buffs who watch Turner Classic Movies. It takes brain power to remember which series or movie you saw back when and who was in them. It’s a fun but different type of brain teaser. 

The key to whatever brain exercise you choose is that it should bring you joy. You have nothing to prove at this age—and you’re not getting graded unless you opt to go back to school--other than to do whatever for pure edification. 

Here’s what some of our friends are doing to stay sharp. Dennis recently discovered Middle C; he started piano lessons for the first time. Someone told him—and we quote from his clever annual holiday letter, “…learning to play an instrument helps cognition and memory in the elderly.” We don’t consider Dennis elderly. This guy doesn’t sit still. He serves on boards, plays golf and cooks, but he also wants more to tax his brain. He took to the task with the same determination and gusto he gives any new endeavor.

Although his piano teacher is pushing the classics such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Dennis’ fantasy was something quite different. He wants to mimic Jerry Lee Lewis’ style of boogie woogie and a whole lot of shakin’ going on with his fingers gliding over the keys and hair flying wildly! It’s certainly more aerobic than playing a Chopin nocturne.  

Taking our own advice, Barbara hired a piano teacher a year or so ago. She had played for 10 years growing up, practicing an hour a day and focusing on great masters such as Bach, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. When she tried to go back—she first had to relearn how to read music, which took a lot of memorizing. She told her young teacher she felt they should have bi-monthly lessons, so she had time to practice in between. Sadly, after the first lesson, she never found the time, but she hopes she will at some point.

She’s not sure why. However, just in case she gets the bug to tickle the ivories again, she keeps her piano tuned. She also wants friends to sit and play. And like Dennis, she thinks it might be fun to play the show tunes she was never allowed to learn during lessons growing up. 

Margaret’s brain has headed back to music. She took voice lessons as a teen, sang for years in a Bach Society choir and retired to pursue a new passion, her work with kids. She put her voice to rest. However, this passion has resurfaced after moving to New York City and meeting someone with a similar background in music. The two have been in two performances at Lincoln Center.

Most recently, Margaret’s synagogue formed an adult choir, and she signed up, although she doesn’t know Jewish music and has never studied Hebrew. Learning new music and remembering the Hebrew words (transliteration), has been great exercise for her brain. And she loves it and the people and clergy she’s met.

Which reinforces our belief that any endeavor is worthy and should be continued as long as it hits these notes:

  • It continues to be enjoyable, so you look forward and don’t dread it;
  • The learning process doesn’t become overly frustrating though it may be in the beginning and at different points;
  • It offers something new to add into your life, ideally that you’ve long wanted to do, or which is wildly different;
  • It’s a realistic pursuit based on your health and age. Don’t start training for a 26-mile marathon if you can’t run one mile or have a bad knee. Instead opt for a good walk each day;
  • Is there a social component? It may offer some good camaraderie with others, though some pursuits may be solitary. Maybe you pursue more than one, crossword puzzles which are alone and a crafts class where you reap the benefit of new friendships or just being with others;
  • It becomes a healthy part of your life that broadens you as a person and maybe even expands your horizons into the world. The timeline for our continuing to learn, sadly, is shortening.
  • Always keep in mind, these pursuits are your choice. If you don’t like what you’ve pursued, try something else. There is a buffet of choices available to take advantage of while you can.

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