Lifelong Learning: The Journey of a Lifetime

It’s the time of the year when school is back in session and learning is top of mind. Fortunately, our brains love to absorb new things all the time. Throughout our lives, we have to find new and different ways to challenge our brains to continue to learn.

“Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” – Anthony J. D’Angelo

Learning Myth
It is a complete myth of aging that adults do not have the ability to learn new things. The ways we learn information change with age, along with some age-related brain processes that support learning, but we have the ability to learn until we are no longer here. (Individuals with a wide variety of brain-related conditions also have the ability to learn in different ways.) Our brains love to learn and be continually challenged.

Adult Learning
As adults, we learn from our daily lives and tasks. We learn best from applying our knowledge, our experience over the years, and through our trials and tribulations. With age, we purposefully seek out information that is relevant to our circumstances, our lives, or could be helpful to us in some way, and then we actively apply this information.

Adult learners are different from children, as, over time, we have learned how to learn. How we apply the information that we learn in our daily lives is practical. We have the ability to take information away from a talk, training, seminar, or chat and know what we can do with the relevant key points for meaning in our own lives. We also typically know how to ask questions to support our learning or to clarify points that are unclear to us. (Now, asking the questions is a different blog!) As adults, we have more freedom to learn in our own way and over time, we know what works best for us to learn.

Formal vs. Informal Learning
Learning is a lifelong process and mainly occurs in two ways: formal learning and informal learning. Formal learning experiences and opportunities are what many people seek out to engage the brain, such as traditional classes or virtual classes, community education programs (libraries, senior centers, civic groups), fitness or dance classes, foreign language or sign language courses, massive open online courses (MOOCS), music or cooking lessons and so much more! Formal learning opportunities are delivered in a structured or systematic way, whereas informal learning opportunities are more unstructured, unintended, and can be self-directed. Informal learning opportunities include reading a book or newspaper, listening to a podcast, card games, jigsaw puzzles, art projects, crafting, woodworking, brain puzzles (crosswords, Sudoku, word search, adult coloring, paint-by-number, etc.), and stimulating conversations with friends or discussion groups. Both formal and informal learning is good for our brains and each serves a different purpose to support our lifelong learning.

Learning Tips
There are a variety of ways to be a lifelong learner. There is no rule of thumb for how much learning someone should do per day nor how we should continue to learn throughout our lives. Current research finds that individuals who are lifelong learners have a better cognitive reserve, the ability for their brain to be protected against some loss or disease that has accumulated over time.

Here are a few simple tips to make learning something new part of your everyday routine:

1. Start with one small thing each day. Learn a new fact, vocabulary word, or quote related to a personal area of interest. Explore printed daily calendars that can be purchased and reviewed daily with your breakfast or afternoon cup of tea. Try to pair this activity with an existing part of your daily routine. There are also free daily emails with a new vocabulary word from a couple of different websites from The New York Times- The Learning Challenge,  A. Word. A. Day.,  Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day,  and or Dictionary. Learn a new word each day, its meaning, and its origin, and add it to your vocabulary. Find something simple that you can do daily to warm up the brain and start a lifelong learning routine. Keep it simple and find something you enjoy. Have something you do already? Let us know in the comments below. It is great to learn from one another.

2. Read daily. Read something every single day even for just a few minutes. Read something new or different. Read a paragraph or page out loud to activate different areas of your brain and to process information differently. (Use this strategy if you find yourself re-reading something a couple of times.) Reading is a simple way to learn new things especially topics outside of our typical interests. It can be helpful to look for uplifting content such as a daily motivational quote from Growing Bolder with profiles of adults and their life stories and accomplishments.

3. Stay curious. Make lifelong learning fun. Vary lessons or activities that you try and know that learning is a process. Increase the challenge of your learning to keep your brain sharp and change up your activities. Routinely engaging in the same tasks makes the brain “bored” and does not generate the same effect as trying new things. Continually increase the challenge from time to time and stretch beyond your comfort zone. Think of lifelong learning like fitness for the brain; many of the same principles apply. Explore new things and see what works best for you.

Lifelong learning reshapes our brains through neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change, and neurogenesis, our brain’s ability to grow new neurons. Continuous new learning and challenge for our brains help us grow at the basic level but also boosts social connections and personal growth. May we all continue on our lifelong learning journey to build better brains.

And one final thought: “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live.” – Mortimer Adler

In brain health & wellness,

P.S.- If you are looking for opportunities to try something new, here’s an open invitation to join the Virtual Brain Health Center’s free events until the end of this year, including physical movement, cognitive engagement, and personal well-being courses. Registration is required and available on Eventbrite.

**Written for EngAGE Your Brain blog series for Northeast Ohio Boomer & Beyond Magazine. Read the original article post here.  

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