Learning is a lifelong process

by Alicia Williams

Everyone’s heard them, probably even said them on occasion: timeless age-related jokes correlating one’s ability to learn with being young.

When it comes to learning, we now know the theory “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks” has been officially replaced with “use it or lose it.”

For the last 53 years, the Seattle Longitudinal Study of Adult Intelligence has been tracking more than 5,000 participants who’ve had mental and physical testing every seven years since 1956. The study has found that intellectual decline in older people’s mental performance is often due to disuse, and it’s reversible.

Not only did two-thirds of participants show improvement, but 40 percent of declining participants returned to pre-declined knowledge levels and have maintained the training effects for more than 14 years. The brain is truly like a muscle that will deteriorate when it isn’t flexed, and just like a muscle, it needs quality stimulation to help it grow and stay strong.

Scott Wright, associate professor and director of the University of Utah’s Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program, said the “age tsunami” has already hit America. During the next several years, 76 million baby boomers will begin to retire.

Every month, 35,000 people are turning 65. Wright said they should be optimistic because they have great potential for the second half of their lives. He said the fastest growing student population will be older than average students, and continuing education is the key to a long, healthy life.

“When I went through grad school, 21 (years old) was actually promoted as the peak of IQ for adult intelligence and that it would decline for forever after that,” Wright said. “Our studies now show intelligence stays about the same across the entire life course.”

Both mental and physical exercise will help the brain stay in peak performance. According to Resources for Science Learning at the Franklin Institute, continually challenging the brain by learning new things, reading and playing games helps to improve function no matter how old one is. Passive observation is not enough; we must interact with different environments to create a challenge for our brains.

The fact is, we’re all aging. The difference is how we choose to age. Cathy House, program director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Continuing Education at the U, said the ability to keep our minds strong and sharp is a reality that only comes from making a commitment to lifelong learning at an early age. Deciding to never stop learning will not only keep the brain healthy, said House, but it will also help to make the aging journey fun and interesting.

House said one of the biggest obstacles to achieving this commitment is youth itself. When we’re young, we’re often required to learn in order to attain something. It isn’t until we’re older that we recognize the desire to learn just for the pleasure of it.

“For the students, if you’re targeting undergrads, it’s a long way until they are 50,” House said. “It’s one of the things I value most about being over the age of 50. It’s just to look back on my life and think about the things I’ve learned. At this stage of my life, I’ve figured out I can learn just about anything that I have an interest in. And that’s pretty cool to know. When I was younger I didn’t really know that.”

The U has an extensive continuing education program that bridges the span of youth to lifelong learners. The Osher program specifically caters to adults older than 50. All of the classes are noncredit: no tests, no grades. Current students range in age from 50 to 90-plus years old.

“Learning is the spice of life; it can add dimensions to your life that you cannot get any other way,” House said. “It’s a way to enhance life, to make it much more interesting.”

The Franklin Institute’s Resources of Science Learning describes the brain as a thinking organ that learns and grows at all ages when it interacts with the world through perception and action. Because research shows that age-related memory loss is a direct result of disuse, mental exercise and stimulation are encouraged. You’ve got to use your brain so you don’t lose it.