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Geoff Johnson: Aging brings new opportunities for learning

Keeping the brain active and learning new, intellectually demanding skills can have significant benefits for older people
Some of the intellectual skills most commonly ­recommended for older adults include learning to play an instrument, card games or chess, and ­learning ­computer skills or a new language, writes Geoff Johnson. AAN KASMAN VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Canada’s population is aging. The proportion of seniors in Canada will rise from 16.9% to 21.0% over the next 10 years, according to the not-for-profit think tank the Conference Board of Canada.

According to the Conference Board of Canada report, the baby-boom generation, which has dominated Canadian demographic trends since the 1950s, began entering retirement earlier this decade, a process that will accelerate over the next few years.

Over the next 10 years, 5.1 million Canadians will reach age 65.

That will reverberate through the economy, medical and health services — and especially education.

Why education? Because there is a mountain of research that indicates older people show significant cognitive benefits from continuing to learn, provided they have the opportunity to do so.

Benefits derived from new learning fall under the definition of health services, because those services, including the many continuing education options ­available for seniors, focus on prevention, unlike ­medical services, which treat injury and illness.

But what kind of new learning will interest seniors?

“New learning is especially important as we grow older,” Rachel Wu wrote in Current Directions in ­Psychological Science in 2019, adding: “one of the most fundamental aspects of learning is combining our ­existing knowledge with new information and deciding what to learn.”

That’s difficult when both relevant and ­irrelevant information compete for attention, Wu wrote. ­“Determining what to learn is important because ­learning relevant information helps the learner achieve goals, whereas learning irrelevant information can waste time and energy.”

In other words, “as we age, our sense of what is worth learning narrows drastically, usually based on what has been important in the past,” she wrote.

Another researcher, Association for Psychological Science fellow Margaret E. Beier, agrees. In a recent article in Current Directions in ­Psychological Science, Beier suggests that as people age, “they are ­increasingly likely to select goals aligned with their existing strengths, adapt their approach to ­achieving these goals by optimizing the resources that are ­available to them, and compensate for declines in resources by adjusting their approach or ­environment.”

Aging may also bring positive cognitive changes.

For example, many studies have shown that older adults have larger vocabularies and greater knowledge of the depth of meaning of words than younger adults. Older adults may also have learned from their many years of accumulated knowledge and experiences.

Most researchers into aging agree that new ­learning, especially at a later stage in life is, broadly ­speaking, usually divided into two categories: intellectually ­challenging activities or more physical leisure or ­recreational activities.

Keeping the brain active and learning new, ­intellectually demanding skills can have significant benefits and help reduce some of the symptoms that older people often suffer from, regardless of whether they have dementia.

Some of the intellectual skills most commonly ­recommended for older adults include learning to play an instrument, card games or chess, and learning ­computer skills or a new language.

Learning a new language especially has been found to be a very beneficial activity and is particularly ­useful for older adults, inasmuch as learning a new language can help seniors socialize, feel eager to travel and meet new people and expand horizons.

Engaging in leisure activities has also been found to be positively associated with cognitive function, ­physical function and mental health in late adulthood and in the elderly.

The protective effects of engagement in leisure activities against aging-related decline has been the subject of much investigation in recent decades.

So whether there’s a desire to keep up with trends, explore new interests, develop or refresh physical skills or study something new, it is possible for seniors to explore various online learning options tailor-made for seniors who can then select those of interest.

Fortunately, many post secondary education ­institutions have kept up with the leisure time and intellectual needs of Canada’s aging population.

A quick trip to Mr. Google (a useful activity all by itself for some seniors) reveals 13 Canadian ­universities provide free or discounted online courses for seniors in Canada.

Many colleges, libraries and recreation programs also offer free online courses.

An exhaustively extensive research project reported in the U.S. National Library of Medicine concluded that “the frequencies of reading, writing, and using ­technology were significantly related to the ­language and attention, language, and memory domains, ­respectively. These results demonstrate that daily intellectual activities are related to specific cognitive domains.”

As Betty Friedan wrote: “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.