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December 6, 2021
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Continual Learning Can Slow Cognitive Aging — You Just Need The Right Hobbies

Considerations about longevity often tend to revolve primarily around physical health. This makes perfect sense, given that it is in broad terms the most important subject with regard to how long human beings are actually capable of living. And so, we focus on healthy diets, physical exercise, innovative bodily treatments, combatting killer diseases, and the like. Another subject in discussions about long-term health and longevity, however, has to be how we can work to slow or stop the natural process of cognitive aging.

It goes without saying, but a well-preserved body is nothing without a healthy and functioning mind. Thus, even as we prioritize physical health and disease prevention, we need to engage actively with methods for staving off dementia, preserving a capacity for intellectual curiosity, and otherwise protecting cognitive health. The good news is that one of the solutions we know a fair amount about is about as simple as it gets: learning.

What does this mean exactly? Well, what if I told you that by picking up a hobby that enabled you to keep learning over time, you would be taking a concrete step toward expanding your cognitive longevity? What if I offered examples, and told you that individual steps on this journey could be as simple as playing a song in a genre you don’t listen to, or learning the rules of poker? Or even maybe reading a book on the ancient history of the Khmers? These might seem like strange ideas to point to. But the simple fact is that they illustrate aspects of some of the more productive efforts we can make to keep our minds sharp over the course of a long life.

Scientifically speaking, the benefits of learning have been studied extensively, and already we know that they include delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms, as well as offsetting cognitive decline, bolstering memory, and generally improving quality of life. To begin enjoying these benefits, one only needs to find the right hobby.

What we mean by the “right” hobby is somewhat open to interpretation. But generally, the most logical practice is to find new pursuits that are not finite (or close to it). That is to say, do not hone in only on learning activities you can complete, such as working your way through a favorite book of Italian recipes, or becoming fluent in French. Instead, find habits that you can enjoy over time, and which will challenge you to keep learning, practicing, and improving your ability. To expand on this idea, we’ll highlight a few possibilities relating to the examples alluded to above: music, poker, and history.

Music

When you imagine different hobbies you could choose that might enable you to continue learning for the rest of your life, it’s hard to land on one much more fitting than music. Whether you already play an instrument, or you can’t yet read a sheet of music, this is a hobby that can essentially be made infinite by someone who is specifically striving to learn.

One reason that this is the case, naturally, is that there are so many instruments to learn over time. And while some are closely related — the guitar and the ukulele, for instance, or the clarinet and the oboe — there are others that pose new challenges and offer fresh learning curves even for learned musicians. For instance, an experienced pianist will largely have to start from scratch taking on a trombone; a bassist who has played rock shows might not know where to start with a bandmate’s drum kit. But all of these instruments can be learned over time, and the process makes for a fantastic exercise for the mind.

Aside from learning new instruments, there is also always new music. Above, I briefly suggested the idea of trying a song in a genre you don’t listen to as a means of learning something new. And this concept also is, in itself, essentially infinite. No matter what instruments you may ultimately spend a majority of your time on, there will always be new songs and genres to explore, learn, and perhaps master. And each new note of each new song gives your mind the chance to continue adapting over time.

Poker

Poker is actually a fascinating example to consider, because upon initial consideration you might consider it to be a fairly limited one. One line of thinking would suggest that once you learn the value of different hands and cards, and the general rules and structure of the game, you’ve effectively mastered it in a certain sense. However, this is ultimately a misguided assumption that avoids two important details: that there are different varieties of poker, and that each and every game of poker presents an original scenario.

Regarding the first detail, I’d like to pose a simple question expanding on another of the examples offered previously: Do you know how to play the game by Omaha rules? I’m willing to bet that for all but serious poker enthusiasts, the answer is no! And yet this is a version of poker that varies only slightly from Texas Hold’em — a variety far more people would be able to explain if asked. Omaha essentially involves more cards being dealt to each player, and a different way of organizing a final hand. And many who have only bothered to learn Texas Hold’em would be baffled upon a first glimpse of Omaha.

This is a helpful example to consider because it’s just one of many. There are numerous varieties of poker, and each can be studied and learned in fairly intricate detail over time. Even that, however, is only part of the equation. The other reason that poker makes for an effective long-term hobby for someone who wants to learn continually is, as mentioned, the dynamic nature of each individual game. Putting it simply, no two poker games are alike. Cards will be dealt in different order, bets will be made in different ways, and opponents will behave as individuals — and good players can find something new to learn from just about every hand (let alone game or tournament).

When you factor all of this in — learning the game basics, mastering several varieties, and then drawing knowledge from each game — poker truly is a hobby that can keep you learning indefinitely.

History

It may be more natural to think of history as a subject than as a hobby. However, to those who enjoy learning about the past, it can really become something closer to the latter. And here too we have an example of a hobby that can very literally lead to lifelong learning.

Previously I alluded to the idea of studying the history of the Khmer Empire as part of a productive effort toward keeping your mind sharp over time. This is a somewhat random example out of thousands I might have chosen, but I did land on it for a specific reason, which is that many who grew up in the West have hardly heard of this once-mighty empire. When we study history growing up, we tend to learn a fairly narrow version of it — a linear timeline of events from ancient civilization through the progression of western civilization and into the present day.

My reason for pointing this out is to highlight just how much is left out. That a powerful empire with an enduring cultural impact on a large corner of the world goes almost literally unmentioned in our history classes is an indication of the scope of history that is still out there for all of us to learn. And really, it’s something of a “macro” example. When you begin to consider not only far-flung civilizations and empires, but also impactful events, consequential figures and the like, it all gets almost dizzying. And yet, we are fortunate enough to live in a time at which books and resources exist that can teach us a little bit about all of it. For those who enjoy the subject, it truly does represent limitless learning potential.

These potential hobbies represent only a few of many options you might consider. But if you are in fact focused on longevity, and you are considering ways to focus on the cognitive as well as the physical, there is wisdom in developing hobbies that foster ongoing mental development. Practicing music, playing poker, and studying history are all examples of enjoyable activities that challenge you to learn more each time you engage with them.

In that process, you might just begin to develop the cognitive resilience needed for a long and happy life.

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