Monday, June 10, 2013
Learning for Life
17th century English clergyman and historian
Once we reach a certain age, we may believe we've lost our ability to learn. After all, sometimes we can't even remember where we've left our keys. Yet research shows we can continue to learn throughout our lives. Our brains have a quality called neuroplasticity — the ability to physically change as a result of our experiences. Neuroplasticity allows us to literally make new connections in our brains. This phenomenon is one of the reasons mental activity may help prevent dementia.
"Even for the elderly, the human brain continues to grow new neurons, and mental exercise improvies brain functioning," ways Devorah Small-Teyer, MSW, director of social services at the Los Angeles Jewish Home's Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center. "Non-routine activities arouse the brain and keep it processing new information."
If you doubt the ability to learn later in life, you might be inspired by Willadene Zedan. In May, she received her college degree from Marian University in Wisconsin — at the age of 85.
It's true that we learn differently as we age. For one thing, we don't learn as quickly and we're more easily distracted. However, older adults have certain cognitive advantages, such as better reasoning and judgement, than their younger counterparts.
In The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, New York Times science editor Barbara Strauch notes that, "my middle age, the brain has developed powerful systems that can cut through the intricacies of complex problems to find...concrete answers." In addition, she says we've gained "a broader perspective on the world, a capacity to see patterns, connect the dots, even be more creative."
Certain kinds of learning seem to benefit the brain more than others. Interviewed in The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, Elizabeth Zelinski of the University of California says we need to constantly challenge our brains with novelty. "Crossword puzzles are not enough. You are mostly trying to find words you already know," she says. Instead, she suggests, try "something hard for you — not so hard that you lose focus — but hard."
At the Los Angeles Jewish Home, providing residents with new learning experiences is a priority. One of the ways this is being accomplished is through the use of iPads. Residents who have never experienced this type of technology are learning to use iPads for a variety of activities. Some "travel" around the globe thanks to Google Earth and other websites. Other enjoy books with the help of larger fonts available on these devices. Residents are learning about email and blogs. They are Skyping with family members and friends.
"Social workers have also been showing our residents apps to help improve their mood, to help stimulate cognition, and decrease social isolation," says Small-Teyer. "The iPads are enhancing residents' communication with the outside world and helping them feel connected."
Using iPads is just one way seniors can pursue stimulating new experiences. Many other opportunities exist. Learn a challenging game, such as chess. Take up a new hobby, such as woodworking or knitting. Learn a new language or how to play an instrument. Take a class at the local community college or senior center. Volunteer at an animal rescue shelter, food pantry, or library. Taking classes and volunteering have a double benefit because they involve interacting with other people. Socializing is another way to promote mental sharpness.
Learning can and should be a lifelong endeavor. Not only is it an enjoyable pursuit, but it benefits our brains as well.