We've talked a lot on this blog about the benefits of lifelong learning for seniors' well-being. But what exactly is it? Does one have to go to classes to see a benefit or is lifelong learning a general engagement that can be undertaken at home? Let's dive in a little deeper and explore this senior life opportunity.
"Lifelong learning" can be achieved by anybody, anywhere.
Engaging in lifelong learning does not mean you need to enroll in a college course. Nor does it mean you will be required to take and pass tests. All we're really talking about here is continuing to use your mind for something other than a cushion to give your head its shape.
You can do so however it best works for you— by taking classes at a university or online, by regularly visiting the library and checking out books you are interested in, by learning a new skill or hobby, or even by watching documentaries from the comfort of your easy chair.
The brain doesn't care how it learns as long as it is learning.
Use it or lose it.
Just like muscles would when they are not exercised regularly, the brain can actually shrink— a process called atrophy (meaning "without food," in Ancient Greek)— and become less able to perform even basic tasks. Your brain needs continuous challenges and stimulation to stay at its best. You need to keep feeding it new information, so that it will be ready to meet new challenges.
Clinically, seniors who do engage in lifelong learning efforts have been shown to retain their memories and other cognitive functions longer than seniors who do not seek out new opportunities to learn. A study published in the journal JAMA Neurology found that continuing intellectual pursuits throughout one's life may delay the onset of dementia and other cognitive disorders.
Learn more, feel happier.
There are emotional benefits as well. The pursuit of lifelong learning has been shown to alleviate or even prevent the development of clinical depression in seniors. Depression is a significant struggle for many seniors. By some estimates, as many as 4 in 10 elderly individuals may suffer from clinical depression.
Moreover, clinical depression is associated with a three-fold increase in the development of dementia symptoms. Whether clinical depression is causal to dementia, or they proceed from the same degenerative brain condition, is unknown, but any tactic undertaken that can prevent the onset of depression is clearly a better option than treating the symptoms once they start.
Treating depression symptomatically, with popular antidepressant medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), has been shown to be linked with earlier demise in the elderly, relative to seniors who took no antidepressant medications. Antidepressants are suspected to be among the leading contributors to catastrophic fall injuries and other major polypharmacy-related illnesses in older people.
Lifelong learning classes are a great way to get out and socialize.
Though the benefits of solitary intellectual pursuits are clear, if you have the opportunity to take classes at your local college or university, at a senior center, or via open and distance learning (ODL) methods, you should consider doing so.
Seniors who participate in lifelong learning classes— even ODL courses— have more opportunities to meet others 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. And, as Harvard researchers have reported, maintaining an active social life in and of itself slows the rate of memory loss and delays the onset of dementia-spectrum disorders in older people.
Lifelong learning can be as simple or as strenuous as you want it to be. But the more you challenge your brain, the better.
There are certainly benefits to be derived from taking a water aerobics course or arts and crafts class. Compared to a course that teaches you how to use the latest digital technologies, or a seminar on World History Prior to 1500, those pursuits are easy.
But taking that hard class will certainly keep your brain engaged. Our minds have a remarkable ability to rise to challenges; it's worth it to your long-term health and well-being to give your mind a few challenges of your own.
Senior life shouldn't mean just going through the day-to-day motions.
There is a whole world of interesting topics and opportunities for study. There are new skills to be learned, exciting hobbies to take up and people to enjoy meeting. But it does take a bit of effort on your part. You have to be willing to self-motivate, to stoke your own curiosity and let your imagination run free.
Engaging in the pursuit of lifelong learning just may have you living well and staying vibrant longer. Peruse some course offerings online, or get down to the library and check out a text. It's never too late to start putting your brain through its paces. Start today.