Springtime means graduation season. There is a recent and growing trend among college graduates that is garnering a lot of attention. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, by 2020, 43 percent of college students are expected to be age 25 and older. And among these older grads are more and more seniors, who are embracing their love of lifelong learning.
You may have seen some of the recent news stories about older people who recently got their diplomas. ABC News highlighted Bob Barger, a WWII Navy pilot, who recently received his associate degree in technical studies from the University of Toledo in Ohio. After returning home from the war, he had dropped out of college to focus on his job and earning a living for his wife and two children.
CBS News shared the moving story of 89-year-old Ella Washington, who, after raising 12 children and putting in a lifetime of hard work, recently completed her associate degree in interdisciplinary studies from Liberty University in Virginia. She’s already begun work on her bachelor’s degree, majoring in history.
Bob and Ella are just two of the many older people who are taking advantage of the free time that retirement offers to pursue their education and learn more about subjects they are passionate about. And studies show that the benefits of seniors’ pursuit of lifelong learning are abundant.
Learning something new, such as a new skill or hobby, can help boost your memory. Neuroscientists at the University of Texas at Dallas conducted a study that found that seniors who took on a new mentally challenging hobby saw a lasting increase in their memory skills. These researchers believe that taking on a new challenging activity—like learning to quilt, play an instrument, or operate a computer, for example—strengthens numerous networks within the brain.
A research study conducted by neurologists at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found that engaging in a lifelong pursuit of mentally challenging activities may actually help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The study found that seniors who frequently read, played mentally challenging games like chess, or engaged in other intellectually stimulating activities are 2.5 times less likely to have Alzheimer’s, which impacts approximately 4 million Americans.
And another study out of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School had similar findings. Using participant interviews and brain scans, those researchers found that seniors who reported higher levels of intellectual stimulation throughout their lifetimes had a marked delay in the onset of memory problems or other Alzheimer’s-type symptoms, even though these study participants didn’t actually have any lower incidence of protein plaques on their brains. The ability to delay or even prevent the potentially debilitating symptoms of Alzheimer’s offers substantial advantages when it comes to seniors’ quality of life.
Pursuing lifelong learning activities has benefits that go beyond boosting your brain power. Cognitive neuropsychologists at the University of Sussex in England did a study that found that reading for even just six minutes lowered study participants’ stress levels, slowing their heart rates and easing tension in their muscles. And lower stress has wide ranging benefits for seniors’ cardiovascular health, decreasing blood pressure and reducing the risk of a stroke or heart attack, boosting immunity, and lowering levels of depression.
But researchers at Harvard and Princeton had even more impressive findings in their research on the connection between lifelong learning and health. The study authors found that one more year of education increased life expectancy by 0.18 years. They discovered that the more educated a person, the lower their rates of anxiety and depression as well as the most common acute and chronic diseases (heart disease, stroke, hypertension, high cholesterol, emphysema, diabetes, asthma, ulcer), and they were far less likely to report that they were in overall poor health.
Now, there is a “chicken or egg” debate on whether the increased level of education caused these positive health results, or if the people who were healthier (perhaps based on lifestyle factors like drinking, smoking, eating habits, etc., or the impact of their economic standing) were simply more likely to pursue educational opportunities, but the findings are still significant.
Put on your thinking cap
There are numerous lifelong learning opportunities available to seniors. If you live in a town with a university or community college, call them or visit their website to find out what types of continuing education classes are offered; some colleges will even allow older adults to “audit” a college class—sit-in on classes for no credit, but also for little to no cost. If you don’t live near a school, there are also numerous online learning programs offered by colleges across the country.
AARP compiled a helpful list of the best colleges for older or returning students, which includes online learning opportunities.
If you’re looking to take up a new intellectually stimulating hobby like quilting or painting, contact your local arts and crafts store to see if they offer classes. To learn how to play an instrument, contact a nearby high school to see if the band director can offer recommendations on teachers, or you can even do an internet search to find teachers in your area. Your local library is another great resource, providing not only a treasure trove of mentally stimulating books, but also offering programs and presentations for eager learners.
Lifelong learning at CCRCs
One of the many advantages of living in a senior living community, such as a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, or life plan community), is the array of activities and events offered to residents. Knowing the many benefits to their residents’ mental and physical health, CCRCs in particular put an emphasis on lifelong learning opportunities. From guest speakers to art classes to affinity groups like chess, bridge, and book clubs, CCRCs provide their residents with numerous ways to keep their minds active, all in a close-to-home location.
Some CCRCs have even made lifelong learning a major component of their resident programming. For example, Oak Hammock at the University of Florida, a CCRC in Gainesville, has developed an innovative program called Institute for Learning in Retirement (ILR), which is a cooperative venture between Oak Hammock, the University of Florida, and Road Scholar. The university’s professors and other subject matter experts teach free classes for residents and other local seniors, which are held on the Oak Hammock campus. Courses include everything from literature, history, and creative writing, to art and music appreciation, philosophy, and current events.
Judson Park, a CCRC in Cleveland, has formed a partnership with nearby Case Western Reserve University, giving Judson residents access to numerous lifelong learning opportunities on the university’s campus. Residents can audit classes and attend special programs on the Case Western campus, such as cultural performances, guest speakers, and lecture series. And for their part, Judson provides the university’s alumni, faculty, and staff a $10,000 discount off of their independent living entry fee.
Food for thought
Whether you are interested in getting educated on a new subject or acquiring a new skill, there are near-countless ways that lifelong learning benefits seniors. So why not challenge yourself and try something new? It’s a lifestyle choice that’s good for your mind, which in turn is good for your health!