Learn Something New Every Day

It’s September! The kids are heading off to school … grandparents, too!

Seniors on seminar raising hands

There's a tired old saying: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." But what if it's not the old dog's fault—it's the teaching method? An intriguing new study from University of California, Riverside suggests that older adults could "unlearn" ways of learning that were necessary during their career-building days, but didn't do their brains much good.

Psychology professor Rachel Wu explained, "Across your lifespan, you go from 'broad learning' (learning many skills as an infant or child) to 'specialized learning' (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working, and that leads to cognitive decline initially in some unfamiliar situations, and eventually in both familiar and unfamiliar situations."

Wu says that if older adults were to embrace the same "broad learning" style they used as children, this could improve their thinking and memory. In broad learning mode, a student learns new skills and patterns, often by trial and error, consistently moving outside their comfort zone while being guided by teachers and mentors. Learning is expansive, not focusing on a narrow topic.

Wu offers the provocative theory that when we begin our careers and shift from broad learning to specialized learning, "cognitive aging begins." The kind of learning we do for our jobs is focused on the necessary tasks at hand. We might or might not be really interested in what we're learning. And the stakes are high — trial and error usually doesn't cut it!

Wu urges older adults to embrace broad learning experiences. She says, "What I want adults to take away from this study is that we can learn many new skills at any age. It just takes time and dedication. We seem to make it very difficult on ourselves and other adults to learn. Perhaps this is why some aspects of cognitive aging are self-imposed."

Moving from "old dogs" to another family pet, the saying "Curiosity killed the cat" is also less true as we grow older! Experts studying the neuroscience of curiosity say that animals who are drawn to new objects or experiences have an evolutionary advantage. The drive to gain information could protect us and help us make good choices. On the other hand, curiosity can distract us and cause us to lose focus on the task at hand. During our work years, we often quash our sense of curiosity of necessity. But our senior years can be the time to rekindle our desire to learn new things!

The many advantages of lifelong learning

Grandmother looking at camera while painting eggs

Neurologists tell us that novelty — learning something new — is especially protective of brain health, and can actually delay the onset of memory loss. For example, a memory might be accessed through multiple connections in the brain, and studying music and languages helps create these connections. Education when we're younger builds up lifelong resilience — and exciting new studies show that it's never too late to start! The American Psychological Association recently published a study titled "Sending Your Grandparents to University Increases Cognitive Reserve," which showed that taking college classes slowed memory loss in older adults.

Brain health isn't the only benefit of lifelong learning. Taking a class, learning a new skill and expanding our horizons through education are great ways to socialize. Many classes offer the opportunity for intergenerational sharing. Learning provides a sense of meaning and purpose to our lives, boosting self-esteem. Picking up a new skill might even lead to an "encore career" for seniors who wish to continue working. Above all, learning sparks a sense of joy and encourages creative expression.

Self-directed learning can be fulfilling. Online courses are one way to learn right from your home. Learning with others can be even better! Start a book group or a film club. And why stop there? Today there are plenty of opportunities for older adults to go “back to school”:

  • Check out offerings at the local community college, university or extension. You can take for-credit courses in the arts, history, literature, languages, the sciences—maybe finish your degree at long last? Or take a not-for-credit class. Some universities offer reduced tuition for older adults, or allow them to audit classes for free.
  • Your community's parks and recreation department, community center, libraries and senior centers may offer a wide range of classes in cooking, photography, local history, genealogy ... you name it. Keep an open mind as you peruse their offerings. You might be inspired to learn something you'd never thought about!
  • Go ahead, dip your toe into computer technology that's beyond your comfort zone. Learn how to use a new app or device. Take a beginning programming class. Bonus intergenerational sharing points if a grandchild or other young person volunteers to help.
  • Museums, symphonies and other cultural institutions offer classes, seminars and hands-on instruction, including specialized programs for people with memory loss.
  • Senior travel programs let you learn about the history and culture of a place during a trip. Oh, and the cuisine!
  • Retirement living communities and nursing homes offer healthy aging and other senior-friendly classes.
  • Take an exercise class! Not only is it great for your body, but brain experts also say working out helps us remember what we've learned during the day.

Learning truly is a lifelong process—and it's not only for the young.

Motivated to exercise your brain right now? Check out the "Curiosity Is Great for Your Brain" wordfind in this issue!

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017 IlluminAge