Lifelong learning offers many benefits

Older woman and younger woman taking a college class together
I recently learned of research by Ohio State’s College of Social Work that found that older adults who engage in lifelong learning opportunities have increased emotional satisfaction.
As a neurologist at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center who focuses on treating patients with memory problems, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, I firmly believe that, to keep a brain healthy as we age, we must “use it or lose it.”
The researchers conducted an online survey of 107 participants in  Program 60, a tuition-free, non-credit, non-degree program to that allows Ohio residents age 60 and older to take classes at The Ohio State University and other universities. Students in this program attend classes on a space-available, audit basis at the undergraduate and/or graduate level.
The study, published last year in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, evaluated Program 60 to identify the relationships between participants’ experiences in the program and their quality of life. The participants, who ranged up to 89 years old, reported that they enjoyed taking classes with younger students.
This study provides some food for thought for older adults who may be considering going back to school.
Why is lifelong learning so important?
As our brains age, we may have mild difficulties retrieving memories of recent events, but no trouble learning and storing information. Learning new information or learning new motor skills will keep the brain sharp, and potentially delay aging effects on the brain.
How can taking college classes help older adults?
It can help keep us up with the latest information and how to assess this information in the digital world. It can teach us new regulations or new programs that may be of benefit to us and our families. It can also provide socialization, hone our communications skills and improve our learning or motor skills that keep our brains sharp as we age.
What are other ways older adults can stimulate their minds?
Socialize with others: involve yourself in a discussion that allows for you to make associations, judgments, deductions and assessments based on life experiences. Play games, work puzzles, read, travel, exercise, invent, innovate, play a musical instrument, write a story, write a letter, write a blog, volunteer, teach, lend a helping hand, join a group, go to a play or concert or lecture, participate in research. Be human.
Why should older adults consider interacting with younger generations?
The younger ones need to learn from the older generation through their experiences and knowledge, and the older ones need to learn the new digital world and new programs that may benefit them.
The researchers noted that university-based lifelong learning programs have provided older adults with opportunities to not only develop skills and knowledge, but also expand new social networks with people of different ages. In addition, lifelong learning programs have been shown to further support older adults’ health and well-being, leading to more successful aging.
Dr. Douglas Scharre is a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry and director of the Division of Cognitive Neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Neurological Institute.