It’s Never Too Late to Learn Something New
Not so long ago, scientists thought we were born with all the brain cells we would ever have. But using modern brain imagery, neurologists now tell us that the brain can continue to grow new cells, even in our later years. This process, called neurogenesis, protects our memory. We can promote neurogenesis by eating and sleeping well, controlling stress, getting enough exercise, spending time with others—and notably, by learning new things.
Brain scientists have used MRI scans to show that certain important areas of the brain are larger in people who stayed in school longer. Said Prof. David Bartres-Faz of the University of Barcelona, who performed one of the studies, “This analysis suggested the group of people with more years of education exhibited greater cortical thickness in the frontal lobe, particularly in the prefrontal areas of the anterior cingulate cortex and the orbital cortex.”
Few of us have enough neurobiology education to understand that last sentence, so let’s translate: Learning builds important connections in the brain that can help us maintain a healthier memory in our later years. Even if we have changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, regular brain exercise can build connections in the brain that allow us to compensate.
Learning benefits the brain in other ways, as well. It provides a sense of meaning and purpose, encourages interactions with others, boosts self-esteem and fights depression. Novelty—learning something new—is especially good for the brain.
Back to school at any age
Until the pandemic brought some educational opportunities to a halt, a growing number of older adults were literally going back to school, earning college degrees even after the age of 90. But learning need not be in a formal setting to offer benefits. Even if you collected a Ph.D. earlier in life, it’s no good to just sit back and coast!
Educational opportunities abound for people of every age and ability, including appropriate activities for people with memory loss and other disabilities. Many have migrated online—and indeed, there’s been a great renaissance of technology training classes and instruction for older users. So during “Back to School” season 2021, check out these senior learning resources in your community.
Universities, colleges and community colleges not only offer degree-track courses, but also continuing education classes. Many feature special offerings designed for older adults, on a wide variety of subjects. These days, courses are available online. Some allow you to complete lessons at your own pace; others have scheduled lectures and technology that allows you to communicate and connect with your instructor and classmates.
Senior centers and parks and recreation departments usually offer traditional lecture-and-discussion classes, as well as hands-on courses such as cooking, languages, photography and crafts. Many have been put on hold at this time, or have been modified for social distancing. Others have gone online. Check with your local agencies to find out what’s available.
People who live in a senior living community can often access classes, presentations and other programs where they can learn something new, pick up a new skill, and interact with others. Many communities are providing distance learning versions of their programming for the time being. Don’t worry, there won’t be a test!
Don’t overlook your public library. A library card is free, and books are only the beginning! Libraries today offer classes and presentations on a wide variety of subjects—from genealogy research to computer education to current events. Some of these programs are on hold, and others are being held online, with archived tutorials.
Many cultural institutions such as museums and symphonies have outreach and educational programs. Some are specially designed for older adults, and some serve people with disabilities, such as vision loss or Alzheimer’s disease. During this time, many are offering virtual programs, which have proven so popular that the trend will likely continue.
What about volunteer training? There are volunteer opportunities for people of every ability, and special training can make you even more of an asset to the organization lucky enough to have your skills and time. These days, a lot of older adults are helping kids in the remote learning environment—and building their own computer skills in the process! Others are tutoring fellow seniors in using video chatting, social media and other socially distanced communication channels, and supporting the needs of isolated seniors in other ways.
If organized education just isn’t your thing, create your own learning program. Research a topic online—maybe your family history, or music, or information about a place you love. Join a group of people with similar interests, in person or online. Whatever your interests, make it your goal to learn something new every day.