The quest for knowledge is a lovely thing to do. Aside from keeping us occupied and social, education piques our interest and forces us to use our most powerful muscle: our mind.
And there is no shortage of data indicating the need to stay sharp and never stop learning; lifelong learning is linked to increased cognitive function, healthy emotional wellbeing, and positive self-perception.
Education promotes real growth.
When you learn anything new, your brain develops new cells and forms new connections at any age. The overall process is a little more complicated and technical, with literally hundreds of connections developing, working, and dying all at once. Still, studies have shown that older persons who continue to learn are less likely to acquire dementia or Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, challenging yourself with the new subject matter can be satisfying. When you’re interested in a subject and feel successful at work, your brain creates some of the same hormones as when you’re in love—though, to be honest, it’s probably not quite as intense. In either case, education at a later age is a method to develop a genuine emotional connection to new experiences and information. Those feelings can positively impact how you perceive other aspects of your day.
It is never too late to learn something new.
One widespread misperception regarding learning later in life is that older adults do not make good pupils. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they jokingly say. But this is just not the case. Of course, seniors have always known this, but science now backs it up. Scientists have observed that older adults are more contemplative and philosophical, but younger minds are swift and computational, developing new thoughts like rapid-fire. This indicates that younger people aren’t always better students or thinkers; they process information differently.
There are several ways to learn.
If you’re worried about fitting in in a classroom, it could help to know that there are three types of learning, and you’ve probably been doing two of them for years. Formal, non-formal, and informal education are all options.
A formal environment is usually the most rigorous, and it frequently results in a credential or a degree. This is a traditional and straightforward method of lifelong learning.
Non-formal education is provided in small groups in a focused learning environment, although it does not always culminate in a formal certification or award. Instead, it is dependent on self-motivation.
We’re all familiar with informal learning, but we don’t realize it’s occurring to us—learning from our experiences. This is an example of unconscious information gathering, which most individuals perform throughout their lives.
It’s crucial to remember that older adult education programs primarily pertain to formal and non-formal learning; however, there’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself with new experiences at any age.
So, with all of this in mind, here’s how to get started:
- It can be intimidating to plunge directly into a new subject if you haven’t attended a seminar or taken a course in a long time. Reduce your anxiety by focusing on improving something you already know or enjoy. Take a pastime and turn it into a research project. If you enjoy painting, consider taking some art history lessons. Do you enjoy gardening? Examine an agricultural program. The list goes on and on, but in general, there is always a method to learn more about what you do daily.
- Once you’ve decided on the topics you wish to investigate, choose the optimal environment for you. For example, there is a significant difference in the effort required for weekly book club discussions versus earning a master’s degree in English. Keep in mind that the purpose of lifelong learning is not always about quantifiable outcomes. Continuing education is part of maintaining a sharp mind, not launching a profession.
- Finally, consider how you may improve your lifelong learning experience. Make it a social event by inviting friends or loved ones to enroll alongside you—or make it a friendly competition to see who can get the best marks. Don’t be afraid to travel outside of your neighborhood, either. With organizations like BU Evergreen and the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement offered in the Boston area, your classes can be as enjoyable as they are educational.