Max is an old friend of mine (both a very long time friend and old). At 92, he has been retired almost longer than he worked as a professor. But being retired hasn’t stopped him from reading, writing, taking classes (he just started a course on Greek Mythology), and exploring brain exercises and activities on the internet. Max continues to be actively engaged in his field and an enthusiastic mentor to students and professionals who seek him out.
Why doesn’t he just relax and putter around in his garden or cruise YouTube? Because, as Max says, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!” He is convinced that his sharp memory and keen intellect at his age are because he hasn’t neglected his mind.
Studies are proving him correct. There’s a substantial body of research that shows that keeping the brain active and stimulated contributes to brain health. Active learning helps the elderly stay mentally alert and sharp. Exercising the brain by seeking out novel information and interesting problems stimulates and nurtures it.
I suspect that being a lifelong learner has always been the case for some portion of the population. People with active minds don’t give it up as they age. My own grandfather studied German and took up the mandolin when he was in his late 70s. He once told me his grandfather started writing poetry at age 80. Historical figures like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were life-long thinkers and writers, working right up to the time of their deaths.
In the United States, more and more senior citizens are purposefully embracing lifelong learning as a way to stave off dementia and the other common mental deficits that are often associated with advanced age. A 1999 study for the AARP showed that more than 90% of the adults (age 55 and older) who were surveyed planned to continue learning. Another study, this one by the Pew Research Center, showed that 73% of adults consider themselves to be lifelong learners.
Those people know that we can’t stop our minds from getting older. But we can retain much of the mental capacity we’ve got. Studies do give us some guidance about what is most useful:
Don’t buy that “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” You can. You should. A 2013 study published in Psychological Sciences, found that “sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances memory function in older adulthood.” Elders may process new information more slowly but scientists are finding more and more evidence that the brain does remain “plastic” — able to take in new information and master new tasks — as we grow older.
Try out brain games: There is some evidence that using video and web-based brain games can stave off dementia and help seniors maintain working memory. A 2014 study at The University of California at Irvine showed that using computer games that target improving working memory do help visual-spatial skills. The most practical application for older adults is possible reduction in falls since it is visual-spatial skills that help us navigate stairs and uneven ground and to get in and out of a tub safely. Another study, this one by neurologists at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, found that engaging in mentally challenging activities throughout life may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Take that class you’ve always wanted to take: Many colleges and universities offer reduced or free college tuition to senior citizens. Since you are not amassing credits towards a degree, you can choose your own areas of interest. Best of all, freed of the pressure for grades and the deadlines for papers, you can relax and enjoy lectures and discussions in a new way. Most professors enjoy having another adult in the room who can offer broad experience and knowledge to a class discussions so long as you are respectful of the young students.
Learn a second (or third) language: A study published in 2014 the Annals of Neurology, found that acquiring a second language to the extent that we can communicate has a positive effect on cognition as we age.- even when we study a new language later in life. A study by the American Academy of Neurology found that found that translating between languages activates the part of the brain that manages executive function (planning, prioritizing, organizing, impulse control, and flexible thinking). Taking adult language classes and going to such things as film festivals that feature another language can also increase your social circle.
Investigate what a local senior center offers: According to the National Council on Aging, “Compared with their peers, senior center participants have higher levels of health, social interaction, and life satisfaction and lower levels of income.” Senior Centers connect people to community social services and often provide a daily meal. But many do more than that. They also offer educational programs, discussion groups, book clubs, and opportunities to learn new hobbies. People who attend regularly often find new friends.
Increase your friend census by being a joiner: People do need people. Having a social circle is good for your spirits and beneficial to your mental and physical health. But it’s not uncommon to start to become more isolated as we age. Friends move away to be near grandchildren or to live in a better climate. Some friends become sick and die. In the U.S., one in three women and one in seven men aged 65 or older lives alone.
The cure for loneliness is to be a joiner. Participating in group activities can introduce you to new people, will keep you engaged in your community, and is just plain fun. Go to a weekly bingo game, join a book club, attend community and church events, or sign up for a senior-focused group travel adventure. Friendships naturally form among people who are interested and excited about the same thing.
As a society, Americans are living longer. Taking advantage of opportunities to learn can also help us to live better — both physically and mentally. Choosing to expand our knowledge and skills throughout our lifetime is to choose life!