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  • 09 Apr 2024 7:04 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Lifelong Learning for the Health of it

    Many people enroll in lifelong learning programs for the JOY of earning. Read about some of the health benefits of engaging in lifelong learning.

    Updated April 8, 2024

    Text Lifelong learning for the health of it. Calgary Association of lifelong learners. Photo of Calgary skyline

    Are you a "lifelong learner"  - that is, a person interested in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge and/or skills because you find it inherently enjoyable? Have you observed any personal health benefits related to your involvement? If you have, you are not along and in fact plenty of research also shows these very real and valuable benefits. 

    In the January Blog I described a unique model of lifelong learning offered by CALL (Calgary Association of Lifelong Learners).

    Most of us at CALL are part of a rapidly growing demographic, the over-65 crowd. So, we are living longer. For many of us, we are as interested in our "health span" as we are in our life span.

    My name is Maureen Osis and I am a volunteer with CALL and definitely a lifelong learner! In this post, I explore the potential health benefits of engaging in learning activities for mid-life and older adults. 

    This month, I had a conversation with Dr. Alana Gowdy about the health-related benefits of participating in lifelong learning programs. Alana has been an active member of CALL since she returned to Calgary in 2018. She offers courses to members of CALL that explore her interests in medieval history in a light hearted and engaging way.  Alana's programs are just one example of CALL's many interest groups. 

    Her rather light-hearted courses that she offers to CALL members are based on a personal interest in medieval history. 

    Research on the Benefits of Lifelong Learning for Seniors

    With the increase in the aging population, many organizations in Canada are interested in the potential health benefits of engaging in lifelong learning. A report commissioned by the British Columbian Government states:

    "Lifelong learning means that we continue to learn new skills and gain knowledge throughout our lifetimes - an important part of healthy, active aging.

    By taking a class or attending a workshop, we not only learn new things, but we also:

    • meet new people,
    • share ideas,
    • develop our thinking skills, and
    • improve our memories."
    According to Boulton-Lewis, lifelong learning is fundamental to a physically, cognitively and socially healthy lifestyle for older adults, with research demonstrating benefits in the following areas:
    • self-satisfaction,
    • coping strategies,
    • self-confidence,
    • social inclusion,
    • civic participation,
    • health and well-being, and
    • resilience to age-related changes in the brain. 

    Learning and Cognitive Health

    "You don't stop learning when you grow old; you grow old when you stop learning."  
    Motto for the Seniors Program at Simon Fraser University (SFU)

    The Canadian Council on Learning published a report in August, 2006, Never too old to learn: Seniors and learning in Canada.  The report examined the benefits experienced by seniors engaged in active informal learning. 

    "Active learning carries benefits that go beyond alleviating age-related loss of brain function. Engaging in active learning also provides a means for remaining actively involved in the community, for developing new interests and for keeping up with younger generations. In short, people feel healthier, happier, more respected and more independent when they pursue active learning in their senior years."Dr. Marian Diamond of the University of California, Berkeley, produced scientific evidence of anatomical brain plasticity

    For many years, even respected sources reported that we should expect cognitive decline due to the aging brain. We were told that loss of neurons - and function - was inevitable. The brain was seen as something fixed at birth, that slowly declines as we age. This negative and even depressing idea did not suggest that we could adapt and change but then scientists discovered that the brain can modify through growth and reorganization; a concept known as neuroplasticity.

    In 1964, Dr. Marian Diamond of the University of California, Berkeley, produced scientific evidence of anatomical brain plasticity. Dr. Diamond disputed much of the negative view of aging with her ground-breaking work on neuroplasticity. 

    "... the brain is the most miraculous mass of protoplasm on this earth and perhaps in our galaxy. Its potential is virtually unknown. Do you ever think of the brain in your head and what its potential is? Cells thinking about themselves? And it can, under proper conditions stay healthy and active for a full 100 years. We all can do it if we learn how to enrich our brains."
    Dr. Marian Diamond

    The old adage"use it or lose it" is partly true but not quite sufficient. Dr. Diamond found, among other things, that "challenge and newness" were important for a healthy brain. It is not enough to keep doing the "same thing" but instead to learn something new; to face new challenges.

    "Everybody wants a better brain.  Five items that we have found are essential. The first was diet, the second was exercise, the third was challenge, and the fourth was newness, and the fifth, we've added (is) love."
    Dr. Marian Diamond

    Curious about Dr. Diamond's research?  See Resources at the end. 

    General Benefits of Lifelong Learning

    Dr. Alana Gowdy published an article in the CALL Newsletter, January 2023. Lifelong Learning - Reasons for Enrolling. 

    In it she summarized the research on the impact that involvement in lifelong learning can have on seniors. 

    In my conversation with Alana, I asked her:

    • Could you please share with us how you have been involved in lifelong learning programs?
    • Which outcomes of engaging in lifelong learning do you think are particularly important for seniors?
    • Can you share ways that you have personally benefitted from being a member of CALL?
    • Please comment on how CALL's programs allow its members to engage in activities that lead to personal growth.

    View the video.

    An interview with Dr. Alana Gowdy

    Why do People Engage in Lifelong Learning?

    "The interest of many older adults is in learning for the joy of learning -- without examinations or grades -- and keeping in touch with a larger world."
    Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes

    Recently, CALL surveyed its members, asking about their reasons for joining.  A large majority of members reported that they joined CALL to be exposed to new ideas (79%) but indicated that the social advantages of joining CALL were also important to them (58%).

    These results fit with the origins of CALL. While the goal of providing learning was paramount, the founders intended that this learning take place within a community. They saw bringing people together to share, discuss, and explore new ideas and perspectives was an important aspect of the CALL experience. 

    "We provide a social outlet for people as well; people become good friends."
    Tamara Seiler, first President of CALL 

    There is growing evidence that participating in lifelong learning has positive benefits for healthy aging.  Alana said it well in her article.  When she is asked: "Why are you a member of CALL?"
    Her reply:  "CALL? It's just good for me."



    Curious about Dr. Marian Diamond and her pioneering work on understanding the brain?  Here are two videos.

    My Love Affair With the Brain. The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond. (43 minutes) 

    Older Brains, New Connections. Davidson Films (4 minutes)


    Boulton-Lewis. Quoted in Enhancing Lifelong Learning and Intergenerational Learning Among Older Adults. Chichi Odinma. Mount Royal University. April 2022.

    Life Span vs Health Span. Edd and Cynthia Staton.  Next Avenue, January 15, 2024.


    Maureen Osis

    Maureen retired from her career -- first as a Gerontological Nurse and then a Marriage/Family Therapist in private practice working with mid-life and older adults. Maureen has published numerous articles and books, related to her professions. She is a member of CALL because she is passionate about learning. She is a volunteer with CALL, doing social media and the primary author of the blog, because she likes to face new challenges.

    Dr. E. Alana Gowdy

    Although spending years as a research consultant, Alana describes her career as being book-ended by teaching. She started in elementary school and via secondary, college and university levels, is now enjoying the pleasure of sharing her interests with lifelong learners. 

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