So far only two types of mental exertion have been shown to improve or preserve overall cognitive ability. One is musical training; the other is learning a new language, or practising a second one you have already learned.
Gottfried Schlaug, director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Harvard University explains: “Listening to and making music is not only an auditory experience; it’s a multisensory and motor experience. Playing an instrument changes how the brain interprets and integrates a wide range of sensory information, and making music over a long period of time can change brain function and brain structure.”
As for the role of language-learning in boosting brain power, a team at Edinburgh University assessed mental alertness in a group of 33 students (aged 18-78) who undertook a one-week Scottish Gaelic course. After the course they were encouraged to practise their new language for five hours a week. At the end of the course, their attention was found to be better than comparison groups who had done other types of courses or no course at all, and nine months later those who had been practising had bumped up their attention span even more.
Lead researcher, Dr Thomas Bak of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences said the results confirm the cognitive benefits of language-learning. “I think there are three important messages from our study: firstly, it is never too late to start a novel mental activity such as learning a new language. Secondly, even a short, intensive course can show beneficial effects on some cognitive functions. Thirdly, this effect can be maintained through practice.”