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School’s back in session; what are you learning?

September 30, 2016

Education is indispensable, no matter your age

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                Quote via the New York Times

With school back in session, the little ones up to college-agers are hitting the books again. They’re brushing off the cobwebs of the summer and opening up their brains to absorbing new information.

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And what about you? Are you currently taking a class, reading a book, learning a new skill, or practicing something?

There used to be a time when learning was thought to be something only children do, preparing to grow up and start a career. Thoughts have shifted in past years, bringing about the notion of continuing to learn throughout one’s lifetime. Education doesn’t have to stop at a certain grade level, and it certainly bears no age requirements or restrictions. Lifelong learning - whether in a formal classroom setting or on a self-directed basis - has enormous benefits.Our recent societal inclination towards lifelong learning has cultivated programs like deeply discounted or free college tuition for senior citizens (such as Mount Mary University’s 50% off tuition discount for students age 62 or older), community education courses designed specifically for baby boomers (like Waukesha County Technical College and Elderhostel Institute Network’s “Learning in Retirement” courses), and even detailed university course tracks for the older adult (like University of the Third Age in Europe.)

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As these programs have grown, researchers have jumped in to identify exactly what it is about lifelong learning in this type of environment that benefits an older adult. While it’s still early in the research game on this topic, preliminary results of one study published in GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry show that participating in a group learning experience helped older adults increase their memory functioning and overall level of activity over time, as well as lessen their likelihood for depression. As we would expect, the researchers also suggest that a lack of mental stimulation, which many older adults experience as they age, may go hand in hand with a decrease in cognitive functioning.

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Even for someone not interested in learning in a school setting, independent education can be just as beneficial in the golden years. Consider learning to play an instrument, for example. An article in National Geographic assured us that it’s never too late to gain the benefits even if you don't take up learning until later in life. In one University of South Florida study, adults aged 60 to 85 participated in individual piano lessons for six months. At the end of this time period, compared with seniors who had not received lessons, those who had showed greater gains in memory, information processing speed, planning ability, verbal fluency, and more. The researchers noted that learning and practicing a skill serves as a cognitive intervention to help aging adults sharpen their minds.

So what are you waiting for? Participating in an enriching learning environment, whether in a formal school setting or on an independent basis, can have a vital impact on a senior’s vibrant, active aging lifestyle. Been thinking about taking up painting? Learning a new language? Taking a cooking class? Pick up a book, hop online, or head to your local learning establishment. The gold mine of possibilities and the benefits of lifelong learning await you.

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