Life-long Learning is the Key
By Dr. Lisa Cowley

Use It or Lose It

“Use it or lose it” is a phrase that you may associate with the way your body changes if you don’t exercise. However, the same goes for your brain and mental function. How much are you exercising your brain? It has been studied that in most adults learning and thinking plateau and then begin to decline after age 30 with a steeper decline after 60 years old. This is why it is of utmost importance to institute lifelong learning. Lifelong learning is defined as ongoing, voluntary and a self-motivating pursuit of knowledge. If you had a negative experience in a structured educational atmosphere, as a child, do not dismay. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Never let formal education get in the way of your learning.” It is never too late to begin learning something new. You live in a constant, evolving world where new skills, habits and hobbies are vital if you want to stay current.

There is solid research in how lifelong learning can stimulate greater neuron generation and connection in the brain. You have billions of neurons that are responsible for sending information throughout the body and when they are firing at an optimum rate there is an improvement in memory, attention and reasoning skills. When you were a child there was a focus on skills, such as reading and math. Even though you may be still interested in obtaining a new skill have you considered how the process of learning something new maintains or increases cognitive abilities relating to attention and memory?  A recent study out of University of California, where 33 older adults between 58 and 86 years old took three classes that met weekly, each session lasting two hours, learned three new skills. The courses included singing, drawing, iPad use, photography, speaking Spanish and music composition. After the three-month program the participants significantly improved their cognitive scores for memory and attention, similar to those of adults 50 years younger and continued to climb after the program’s end. These findings are in sharp contrast to past research studies that show only maintenance of cognitive abilities. The researchers felt that the key to this increase of cognitive ability had to do with learning multiple tasks simultaneously similar to what children experience. Their observation and findings showed that adults can learn by copying the learning behaviors of children:

  1. Be curious
  2. Be unafraid of criticism and failure
  3. Be receptive to instruction
  4. Be capable of performing multiple tasks at one time
  5. Believe in your ability to learn

Given the research, the question is no longer whether learning as you age is important, but rather, what new subjects do you want to learn? You may not have the time, interest or financial means to take three classes a week for three months, but you can start somewhere. Look at some You Tube channels that focus on your interests, read a book about a subject you are passionate about or take a class in person, on-line, preferably where you can engage with fellow students. Lifelong learning can be joyful, whether it is to enhance your personal development or with the goal of making more money or advancing your career.

If you want to start a new career or further your skills, there are courses through Edx and Coursera, or you can contact your local college. If you are not interested in paying for courses or matriculating in a major, there is an AARP sponsored platform, Senior Planet, where you can take free classes on-line or at one of their five physical locations throughout the country. The classes emphasize financial security, social engagement, creative expression, health and wellness and civic participation. There are many on-line courses with an emphasis on learning and volunteering (on-line or with a physical location) including the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and the Oasis Institute.

AARP estimates that 55% of Americans are currently engaged in lifelong learning. Cost, lack of time-due to family obligations and work-and fear of ageism, are barriers to learning. If our society is truly interested in its ever-growing older population, there are considerations for the future. The most important, which affects students of all ages is the need for broadband throughout the country. Rural areas are especially underserved and therefore disadvantaged from life-long learning. Once this roadblock is tackled, what an amazing opportunity for the future; to provide new challenging, useful and inclusive learning opportunities for all adults. Let’s shift the conversation from the declining aging mind to a vision of elders who are capable of continually evolving and growing.



About the Author

Dr. Lisa Cowley, a holistic chiropractor and nutritional counselor of 25 years, along with her husband Victor Westgate, a high school educator of 34 years, are authors of Pack Lightly: Making Sense of the Second Half of Your Life. You can learn more at:


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