One of the persistent myths about the aging brain is that older people struggle to learn new things. But the science doesn’t back that up. Here’s what you need to know about lifelong learning, and how you can keep your mind healthy and active.
Intellectual wellness is about more than the brain games for seniors you might have seen. It involves being curious, expanding your knowledge and skills through creative, stimulating activities, and even sharing your knowledge with others. It’s one of the dimensions of wellness necessary to support your overall well-being, so making sure that you keep learning can be a key factor in aging well.
Benefits of Lifelong Learning
To do your brain the most good, you need regular involvement in tasks that challenge the way you think and require regular engagement, such as learning a new skill. The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) calls these cognitively stimulating activities, or CSAs. How can engaging in CSAs help keep your mind healthy and active?
- It can help your brain generate new neurons (the cells that send information to your entire body) and create new neuron connections. This impacts memory, attention, thinking, language and reasoning skills.
- Continually learning new things can reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
- It may help you cope better with age-related brain changes and reduce the severity of brain diseases or injuries.
- Adults who report a higher sense of cognitive functioning, health and overall well-being engage in more CSAs per week than those who don’t.
How to Improve Your Brain Health
The GCBH has nine tips to help you pursue better brain health.
- Keep things fresh. Novelty keeps your brain on its toes, so to speak, by stimulating it in unexpected ways. Finding new ways to do routine cognitive activities keeps them interesting and challenging.
- Add people. The social aspects of learning something new can motivate you to keep doing it. Choose a skill you want to learn and invite someone to learn it alongside you. If you enjoy group activities, a larger class might add even more motivation.
- Do something you like. Don’t pick an activity just because you should. Enjoying what you’re doing will help you stick with it over time, even when it’s very challenging.
- Make it practicable. You can’t pursue something that doesn’t fit into your schedule or that you don’t have easy access to.
- Practice, practice, practice. Regular practice of a new skill helps you improve over time. Only doing it when you feel like it won’t let you reap the long-term benefits.
- Get noticed. Finding activities where someone will notice — or miss — your presence can be motivating and encouraging. If you’re not doing a group activity, let someone know what you’re learning and have them ask you about it.
- Use change to change things up. Life stage changes can be a good opportunity to find new ways to stimulate your brain. Moving, changing jobs or retiring all open up the doors to trying something new.
- Study an interesting subject. Always been curious about the Renaissance or World War 1? Have a childhood interest in space, photography or Spanish that you never got to indulge in? Finding subjects you want to learn about makes any challenge more enjoyable.
- Combine mental and physical engagement. Dancing, tennis, yoga, pickleball — learning a new physical skill can boost your brain health and help your body become stronger.
Lifelong Learning at Senior Living Communities
The Age Well Study from Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging found that, on average, residents of Life Plan Communities (also known as continuing care retirement communities) report a higher level of intellectual wellness and engage in intellectual activities more often than older adults living in the community at large. This may be because communities make it so easy to get involved in lifelong learning opportunities.
Because of the importance of developing intellectual wellness, Life Plan Communities, and senior living communities in general, create many interesting ways for residents to keep learning. They offer things like educational and creative classes, lectures, current affairs discussion groups, book clubs and cultural excursions, just to name a few. You’ll also find communities with a university affiliation, which provides access to college classes or programs such as the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning.
Lifelong learning benefits seniors by promoting intellectual wellness, a key factor in living and aging well. If you’d like to see how a senior living community brings opportunities to you every day, visit a community near you.
Global Council on Brain Health
Aging and Brain Plasticity
American Nurse Today
The Age Well Study
10 Ways to Love Your Brain