Lifelong Learning: Benefits of Being the Forever StudentJul 31, 2023 08:30AM ● By Linda Sechrist
It’s never too late to take an evening drawing class at the local high school, learn a language with the help of an app or get one-on-one tutoring from a piano instructor. Adults of any age can find personal and professional benefits when they engage in what is termed “lifelong learning”. It is a great way to spice up retirement, acquire skills for a coveted promotion, master new technology, express creativity or simply keep the mind sharp. Lifelong learners are generally curious, self-motivated and passionate individuals. Their continuing educational pursuits can lead to mental and emotional benefits, including healthier, more fulfilling lives.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Science involving 200 seniors, neuroscientists at the Center for Vital Longevity at The University of Texas at Dallas found that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities—such as learning digital photography or quilting—significantly enhanced memory function in older adults. The researchers were surprised to discover that the control group, which engaged in fun, social activities without learning a new skill, did not perform as well in memory tests.
In a report published in the journal Neurology, Dr. Keith Johnson from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that people engaged in higher levels of intellectual stimulation throughout their lives can delay the onset of memory problems and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, although it does not represent a cure for the illness.
The mind is a use-it-or-lose-it tool, says Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a general and forensic psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. “What better way to use our short-term and long-term memory than to engage in lifelong learning? The older we get, the less likely we are to exercise short-term memory. We program our phones with numbers we call regularly. We store passwords and usernames in our computers and never attempt to memorize credit card numbers,” she explains. “We’re not using our brains enough, leaving us open to being replaced by AI [artificial intelligence]. The brain is a muscle to be exercised regularly or like a car that you must keep tuned up.”
Susteren points to a five-year study of London taxi drivers, which found that the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is crucial for long-term memory and spatial navigation, was larger than average in the brains of these cabbies. What's more, the neuroscientists at University College London were able to show through magnetic resonance imaging that this gray-matter growth occurred over a four-year period after the drivers had memorized an intricate network of 25,000 streets and thousands of routes to tourist attractions and city hotspots. According to Van Susteren, this study suggests that intensive learning can spur the brain to grow over time.
Making Every Day Count
Ingrid Bianca Byerly, a Duke University educator and world traveler, describes lifelong learners as audacious, curious and fun-loving people that passionately seize the day. In a TEDx StGeorge talk entitled “The New Fountain of Youth: Lifelong Learning”, she recounts the invigorating experience of being on the faculty of three Semester at Sea voyages, where she taught adults world music and global advocacy for humanitarian causes while visiting exotic ports of call.
“Entering college, you’re asking yourself, ‘What am I going to do for a job and a paycheck,’ and at retirement, you’re asking, ‘What is my purpose, and what am I going to do with the rest of my life for my personal fulfillment and enrichment?’” Byerly admires lifelong learners for pursuing life goals, learning to play musical instruments, taking art classes, climbing mountains and writing memoirs, and surmises that the secret to staying young and keeping the mind vibrantly alive is adult education.
For some lifelong learners, seeking new opportunities and embracing change are compelling motivators. Take Maia Toll, for example. In 2006, she followed a whim to study herbalism with a traditional healer in Ireland. For the elementary school teacher living in Beacon, New York, botanical herbs had only been a hobby up to that point.
“Apprenticing with Eleanor changed everything,” she says of her experience with her Irish-based mentor. “I had the space in my life and money from selling my house. Three months turned into nearly a year, and upon returning home, I continued studying for four more years.”
Toll left her teaching career to become a full-time herbalist and is now the co-owner of a shop called Herbiary, with locations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Asheville, North Carolina, where she lives. She has taught herbalism at West Chester University in their School of Public Health, led a study program in the Amazon rainforest and written several books, including her latest, Letting Magic In. As she explains it, “Lifelong learning can change your life at any age.”
A Greater Commitment to Learning
For more than 40 years, Jim Walker was a college educator and administrator for schools in Los Angeles before retiring in 2003. He recalls teaching a labor law class as an adjunct instructor for Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, and estimates that about 80 percent of his students were lifelong learners, which he defines as adults between the ages of 30 and 45 that were interested in the subject matter for personal or professional reasons rather than satisfying a requirement for a college degree.
“It was obvious to me that these lifelong learners were more dedicated students than college students. They were like sponges and wanted to absorb everything. Occasionally during classes, it was the lifelong learners that were on their phones googling the subject and updating my facts,” says Walker, who admits that when he had more free time in retirement, he enrolled in meteorology and astrology courses to satisfy longstanding interests of his own.
The Joy of Achieving Milestones
In love with learning and the sense of accomplishment she feels whenever she masters a subject, Doreen DeStefano, of Root Causes Holistic Health & Medicine, in Fort Myers, Florida, has been earning degrees since 1987. She holds bachelor’s degrees in nursing and exercise physiology, master's degrees in criminology and public business administration, and a doctorate in natural health. “In medicine there is always something new to learn,” she says. “I think that’s why I chose this field. It's fun to learn the latest thing.”
There are numerous opportunities for learning, in person and online.
- For people that work full time, many cities offer evening classes at a high school, college or civic center on a wide range of subjects.
- Museums and art institutions commonly host demonstrations and in-depth instruction by local artists.
- A neighborhood music store can lead to connections with musicians that tutor burgeoning rock stars.
- For those harboring thespian aspirations, a hometown improv group or regional theater may be holding auditions or offering acting classes.
- Dance studios help people step up their ballroom dance skills.
- Contact a chef or visit a kitchen supply store for cooking lessons.
- A nearby botanical garden or gardening shop may offer how-to classes for growing native or pollinator plants.
- Pick up sewing tips at the fabric store.
- If a class is not offered, create a study group that meets at a cafe or park to learn together.
- YouTube.com is an endless source for instructional videos of every variety.
- Visit Ted.com for informative and inspiring TED talks by global experts in their respective fields.
- For students that wish to learn while taking nature walks, a vast world of podcasts awaits.
- Coursera.org offers many streaming courses, documentaries and films.
- Auditing university classes at prestigious, world-class schools is just a click away. Visit these popular sites, many of which offer courses for free: Harvard University (pll.harvard.edu/catalog/free), Stanford University (Online.Stanford.edu/free-courses), EdX (EdX.org) and The Open University (Open.edu).
Linda Sechrist has been a contributing writer to Natural Awakenings publications for 20 years.