Cognitive decline is a real concern for many aging adults. Not only does a lack of mental stimulation negatively impact an individual’s mood and outlook, but it can also lead to troubling changes in personality and potentially contribute to the development of chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than six million Americans are currently living with the diagnosis — a number expected to double by 2050, unless a cure or suitable interventions are discovered in the interim.
One promising strategy to slow or even counter these damaging effects is to engage in lifelong learning. Whether it is joining a hobby-based group, introducing grandchildren to a new game or pursuing a later-in-life college degree, continued learning benefits anyone looking to prevent or reduce cognitive decline.
Does Lifelong Learning Offer Brain Health Benefits?
There is a natural concentration of learning and cognitive development that occurs from infancy through early adulthood. This is when multiple real-world skills are acquired simultaneously — something commonly referred to as “varied learning.” This style of learning usually occurs less frequently as people age when there is a drop in the desire or availability of opportunities to learn new skills.
However, technological advances and emerging research have shown that the ability to participate in varied learning remains intact, regardless of age. For example, a 2019 study published in the Journals of Gerontology introduced older learners to three real-world skills like Spanish, drawing and music composition, simultaneously. The study found that learning skills in this way “increased cognitive abilities in older adults … to levels similar to performance in … middle-aged adults, 30 years younger.”
Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and pathways in response to intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli, likely plays a large role in these findings and in reducing age-related cognitive decline. Individuals who are mentally and physically active also tend to live longer, and the National Institute on Aging (NIA) reports that “people who engage in personally meaningful activities … feel happier and healthier.” The boosted mood and resiliency may be due, in part, to the social interactions that occur when people become more involved in activities. This generates a stronger sense of community, especially for older adults who are vulnerable to feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression.
What Learning Environments Are Ideal for Older Adults?
While virtually any type of activity or learning can be beneficial for an older adult, there are a few key components that increase the effectiveness of a learning environment. First, the individual should enjoy the interaction and experience, and as mentioned earlier, derive meaning from their participation. Second, the activity or topic should also challenge the individual and expose them to new concepts and information.
For some, the social engagement and support they find in classroom and group settings drive the desire for continued learning. But, too often, older adults underestimate their ability to learn new things and are subjected to stereotypes and biases, such as negative feedback and lowered expectations.
An inclusive, immersive and age-friendly environment can facilitate greater collaboration, relationship-building and achievement of learning objectives. As mentioned in the Journals of Gerontology study, “Even though older adults have different cognitive and neurological profiles when compared with infants and children, older adults may benefit from aspects of the rich learning environment typical of younger age groups, which includes learning multiple skills simultaneously in an encouraging environment.”
Learning is a healthy, lifelong habit that can reduce cognitive decline, reinforce a sense of purpose, and improve well-being and longevity. Older adults can find meaningful opportunities for learning everywhere, from becoming more actively involved in community and hobby groups to pursuing higher education.