Use your hands much? One of the most protective things you can do against aging is to learn a manual skill when you’re young … and keep it up. Strumming a guitar, knitting, tying a lure — all those things that a younger you rolled their eyes at — valuable lubrication for your future brain!

The next best thing? Learn something new.

This is wisdom from neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the 2020 book Successful Aging

Levitin points out that, “Older adults’ brains are plastic, capable of great feats of rewiring and adaptation …” And yet, neuroplasticity doesn’t slow down as much if you made demands on your brain for many years. The creative arts or jobs and hobbies that require new adaptations every time you approach a task “helps protect the brain against dementia, rigidity and neural atrophy.”

The perception that our brains stop rewiring and adapting as we age has been smashed!

Doing crossword puzzles to flex your brain? You’ll get better at doing crossword puzzles, but your brain still needs you to use your hands, learn something new and learn something that scares you!

Is your roster of manual skills rusty? YouTube is everyone’s friend and teacher. After riding a bike for 55 years I finally learned to change a bike chain thanks to YouTube. Never too late to learn.

You don’t need Levitin’s wisdom to know that using information, generating and regenerating it engages more areas of the brain than merely listening, trying stuff out in your head or at home.

Ever used Duolingo to learn a new language? That’s where many of us get a start to another language. According to Duolingo I had developed a fair level of proficiency in Spanish. I discovered that was a bunch of hogwash once in a Spanish speaking country! Why? Talking to a computer screen didn’t engage my brain the same way as speaking to a clerk to get a good or service.

What about learning to play a musical instrument? My husband always wanted to play the guitar. At 60 he finally took lessons. His progress has been amazing however we won’t even talk about what happened when he played at a recital with other beginners ranging in age from his sixty down to about seven. The fear generated while performing helped him to subsequently learn better.

Continuing education. Life-long learning. Frankly these phrases put me to sleep. Where is the excitement you get with mastery, pushing past your fear of trying something new? Perhaps like me you associate “continuing education” with educational sessions required to stay current in your field. And the timeframe for “life-long” learning is rather daunting. Long-life learning is the new thing.

Consider that what you learn may open unexpected opportunities. For instance, I studied coastal navigation as part of my preparation to get Sail Canada cruising badges (yes, just like girl or boy scouts!) while building my confidence to sail our 37’ sailboat. There is a lot of trigonometry and calculations in good old-fashioned marine navigation, skills I would never have told you resided in me. After completing the online training and subsequent exam I was invited to consider becoming an instructor. Wow! Although I didn’t pursue that teacher training, looking back, that would have been a perfect fit for me. This as an example of uncovering and leveraging your skills and interests to something that could be revenue generating. What could you turn into a side-gig?

Lastly, how about taking your skills to the next generation. Support your adult children to learn skills they eschewed when living at home. Carpentry, sewing — they’re in vogue again! And wondering how to pull your little darlings, your grandchildren, away from their screens? Support them to learn a manual skill. Nothing is old fashioned, or gender based to young people. Ever watch a boy knit? Or a girl take her bike apart? You can see their brains glow! Putting some of your retirement money into a manual skill fund for, say, music lessons will provide a lifelong legacy to your grandchildren.

Engage your brain at work or at home in meaningful activities. Your future self will thank you! 

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