Making a commitment to lifelong learning is one of the best things that seniors can do to improve their health—both mental and physical—and quality of life. In addition to the opportunity to engage in their intellectual interests or to finish up a degree that may have in the past eluded them, lifelong learning courses can bring seniors some significant ancillary benefits.
1. Reduce cognitive decline and preserve or improve memory.
We’ve spoken before about a 2013 French mental health study conducted by INSERM (the French equivalent of our National Institutes of Health) which discovered that there was an inverse relationship between the length of an individual’s career and their chances of being diagnosed with dementia.
Of the half million older adults the agency surveyed, the risk of developing Alzheimer's or similar cognitive dysfunction was reduced by an average of 3.2 percent per year worked after the age of 60. In short, the studied claimed, the longer a person works, the lower their chance of developing dementia because working requires a high degree of mental engagement.
And, as we well know, regular social interaction, physical activity and problem-solving are all essential for maintaining brain fitness. It’s only natural, then, that working, which requires all of the above, would help to delay degenerative cognitive change.
In essence, if you are using your brain, you’re ensuring that you aren’t “losing it.”
A new study published last month in the journal JAMA Neurology found that continuing intellectual enrichment throughout life is associated with a similar delay in the onset of age-related mental decline.
The study, which followed 1,995 people enrolled in the Mayo Clinic's Study of Aging, tracked individual's baseline cognition rates, then matched their professional and intellectual challenge level prior to study enrollment — as well as their intellectual and professional efforts following enrollment — against the age at which cognitive dysfunction began to manifest. For the study participants most engaged with intellectual pursuits and lifelong learning, there was a strong association with a delay in the onset of mental decline.
2. Prevent or alleviate clinical depression.
In one study, published in GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychology, researchers studied two groups of seniors: one cohort of 56 people who attended a U3A program at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid between 2007 and 2011, and a control group of seniors who did not take any courses during the same time period.
Over the duration of the study and in follow-up interviews, psychologists found that seniors in the group of lifelong learning participants were less likely to report negative feelings or to show symptoms of clinical depression. Moreover, seniors in the control group were less likely to participate in social activities or productive activities, and showed a greater tendency toward emotional imbalance, over the course of the observation period.
3. Provide an opportunity for isolated seniors to socialize.
Seniors who participate in lifelong learning classes — even ODL or self-directed courses — have more opportunities to meet peers and develop social bonds. These opportunities may present themselves during video chat-based lectures, in interactions over e-mail or social media outlets, on field trips, and in traditional, campus-based class meetings.
Not all of these contacts need be with other seniors, either— like the University of Kentucky, many institutions simply allow qualifying people 65 and older to enroll for free in any class. So, seniors commonly mix in with traditional, degree-seeking college students and younger non-traditional students. Often, this brings livelier discussions to class, as students of various life experience levels and with different perspectives challenge each others' preconceptions and develop among themselves deeper understanding and mutual respect.
Ready to make a commitment to lifelong learning? Check out these resources.
If you’re looking for ways to engage your mind check out our posts on the following topics:
- Increasing your digital savvy
- Getting active in a social community
- Taking lifelong learning classes at a local college or university
Take your first step towards better cognitive health today!