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  • Learning as You Age Helps Your Brain Stay Healthy
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Learning as You Age Helps Your Brain Stay Healthy

January 3rd, 2019 -- Abby Olcese
Learning into your later years proves as important as physical activity when it comes to healthy aging.
Story by Abby Olcese

As we get older, staying active becomes more and more important. Physical exercise helps you stay in good shape, strengthening muscles and joints and improving overall health. But exercising your brain is just as vital for healthy aging. The brain’s ability to continue working well even when some part of it is disrupted is called cognitive reserve. Taking steps to improve your brain function throughout your life can help your brain compensate for lost functioning as you age.

Although some elements of a person’s cognitive reserve are determined by genetics, lifestyle factors also play an important role in boosting your brain’s natural resilience. Research suggests that people with more education, and who are exposed to opportunities for physical, mental and social stimulation, also have increased cognitive reserve.

According to Harvard Medical School, new brain cell growth can happen late into adulthood, and exercising your brain with new challenges—such as taking a class—can help stimulate that process. Going back to school can also give you the opportunity to revisit subjects you’re interested in, or discover new passions you’ve always been curious about.

However, education doesn’t have to mean going back and getting a degree. Organizations such as KU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute provide non-credit education opportunities for older adults looking to expand their horizons and keep their minds sharp.

Looking for ways to challenge yourself in the new year? Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you consider your options.

What are you curious about?

As a non-degree seeking learner, your options are endless! With no need to ensure a passing grade or complete a degree, you’re free to choose what you’d like. Think about the subjects you’ve always wanted to know more about, or ones you’ve only recently become interested in. Certificate courses and open enrollment classes are a great way to explore new subjects. The Osher Institute also offers courses in subjects as diverse as British literature, world and regional history and even law.

Consider picking up a new skill

It’s never too late to learn something new! Trying a new skill, such as learning a language, can help delay the onset of dementia. While it’s true that younger people pick up long-term skills more quickly, there are still plenty of benefits to adding to your abilities as you age. Think about developing a new skill or hobby, such as photography, music or creative writing.

Learn something practical

If you’re more concerned about picking up important life skills as you age, consider seeking out a class that deals with practical knowledge. Learning as an older adult is the perfect opportunity to get answers to the questions you’ve always had, but were afraid to ask. Discover the secret to finally balancing your budget, learn about the science of aging, disability rights, or how to write a will. The Osher Institute has you covered with such topics and more. If you’re looking to pick up skills to use in the workforce, KU Professional and Continuing Education’s Professional Leadership program offers webinars, seminars and professional certificates.

Don’t overwhelm yourself

Going back to school can be exciting, but it can also get overwhelming. Harvard Medical School suggests prioritizing what kinds of subjects or skills you’re most interested in learning more about, and pick one or two weekly classes to start with. If the class or instructor doesn’t meet your expectations on the first try, don’t get discouraged! You can always check out a different class, different instructor, or even find a different learning format that better fits your needs.

Learn more about educational opportunities through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Interested in delving deeper into how the brain works? You may want to consider a bachelor's degree in psychology from the KU Edwards Campus in Overland Park.