Spring 2010

Lifelong Learning — Encourage Elders to Exercise Mind, Body, and Spirit
By Nancy Merz Nordstrom, Med
Aging Well
Vol. 3 No. 2 P. 27

Elders can reap countless rewards by indulging in lifelong learning. Thanks to a vast array of opportunities now available in lifelong learning, we have the chance to make elders’ later years far more exciting than they might ever have dreamed possible. Incorporating lifelong learning into the after-50 years means elders’ minds will be more stimulated, their bodies more active, and their spirits more fulfilled.

A healthy mind/body/spirit connection is critical to getting the most out of life at any age. As we age, however, this connection becomes even more important. Lifelong learning can help strengthen that connection and there are many ways, both formal and informal, to engage in lifelong learning. Reading a newspaper or a good book or completing crossword puzzles are all considered informal lifelong learning. So in some ways just about everyone is a lifelong learner.

Although informal lifelong learning takes place regularly, there are three more structured ways you can suggest to your patients and clients to reap the numerous benefits of lifelong learning such as taking noncredit classes, exploring the world through educational travel programs, and giving back to communities by using skills and experiences to help enrich the lives of others through meaningful civic service.

Evidence of Efficacy
A study conducted in 1999 for AARP by Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc indicated that more than 90% of surveyed adults aged 50 and older planned to continue learning as they age. When asked why, respondents indicated they wanted to keep up with what’s going on in the world and continue their personal and spiritual growth and experience the fun of learning something new.

Lifelong learning is really about the ways to keep the mind, body, and spirit stimulated, challenged, and fully engaged in the after-50 years. There are good reasons to do so. Research during the 1990s, a decade of pioneering brain research, proved that a stimulated mind promotes a healthy brain. Studies show that keeping brains stimulated helps elders retain mental alertness as they age. The brain’s physical anatomy actually responds to enriching mental activities. Scientists have discovered that the brain, even an aging brain, can grow new connections and pathways when challenged and stimulated.

In the words of Paul Nussbaum, PhD, director of the Aging Research and Education Center in Pittsburgh, “Every time your heart beats, 25% of that blood goes right to the brain. But while exercise is critical, it may be education that is more important. In the 21st century, education and information may become for the brain what exercise is for the heart.” Just like the human heart, our brains need to be nurtured. So think of lifelong learning as a health club for aging brains.

Along with keeping the brain alert and stimulated as we age, we’re all aware of the importance of keeping the body active. Lifelong learning can help in this area as well. Different programs offer opportunities to incorporate activity into daily living. For instance, spirituality, meditation, stress reduction, yoga, exercise of all types, the creative arts, walking clubs, and enjoying nature outdoors are only a few of the many opportunities available.

For those who find learning through educational travel more appealing, opportunities exist to actively explore new and different places rather than simply riding from destination to destination on a bus. Many lifelong learners are out and about, taking part in spirited discussions, talking with the locals, and examining unique places up close and personal.

Many older adults participate in lifelong learning programs for the social aspects as much as for the learning experience. Outdoor programs, field trips, luncheons, parties, and travel far and near provide opportunities to make new friends, engage in stimulating discussions, and share in life’s ups and downs with like-minded people. Recommend lifelong learning opportunities to expand your patients’ horizons.

Making lifelong learning part of the later years fosters a sense of personal empowerment and increased self-esteem. It ensures continued growth and intellectual stimulation, leading to a more fulfilling, enjoyable, and enriched lifestyle. Vitally important to enhanced quality of life, it helps develop natural abilities, immerses in the wonders of life, stimulates natural curiosity about the world, increases wisdom, enables individuals to use their experiences to make the world a better place, and helps them face the inevitable changes in society. Daily use of this health club for the mind, body, and spirit helps ensure a rich and fulfilling third age.

— Nancy Merz Nordstrom, MEd, is the author of Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years. She is director of the Elderhostel Institute Network, North America’s largest educational organization for older adults.