Don’t Stop: The Benefits of Lifelong Learning
As hard as it may be to admit, teenagers are partially right: cognitive ability takes a steep nosedive after our twenties, and we’re not as sharp as we used to be once we reach our forties and fifties. Our brains are shrinking as we age, and the ability to reason, learn, and remember declines accordingly. Scientists have yet to figure out how to stop or reverse this slow fade.
Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, said that while “…intelligence is a fixed quality which cannot be increased, we must protest.” Neuroscientists agree; we cannot reverse cognitive decline, but we can resist it. Evidence has shown that lifelong learners experience slower brain deterioration than their peers who stop learning in their twenties. Actively pursuing new learning opportunities throughout your entire life can have a positive impact on your mental, social, and economic well-being.
Intelligence quotients, or IQs, were once thought to be a predictive indicator of an individual’s ability to successfully navigate life. IQs were considered a measurement of native intelligence, and the number was expected to remain static throughout life. However, this theory has been debunked by subsequent research.
In a recent study at the University College of London, students were shown to have increased IQs after four years of university study. MRI imaging supported these findings; the students who had increased IQs exhibited changes in the gray matter of their brains. This information changed the scientific perception of IQ scores, which are now considered to be a measurement of mental skill developed over time, rather than innate intelligence. Essentially, IQ scores can be changed over time and do not limit an individual’s ability to get by.
Scientists also used to believe that gray matter in the brain was the only place where residual knowledge lay, and that gray matter cells died off as people aged. However, it’s now clear the cells themselves do not die; instead, the connections between them, neural pathways along which knowledge travels, are what degenerate over time. The good news is that these pathways can be strengthened and created at any age.
Forging new neural pathways is arguably more beneficial than strengthening old ones. As we age, it’s easier to retain new information based on knowledge we already have. This is because the core knowledge base we absorb in our twenties, when our brains are young and pliable, does not decrease over time. Learning new information naturally challenges the brain, especially among older adults, but much less so when it relates to concepts already stored in our core knowledge base. Stretching our knowledge base requires adaptability that builds strong new synapses and new neurological connections, slowing down cognitive decline.
Aside from the ability to delay normal cognitive decline as we age, there are significant social benefits to lifelong learning. Habitual learners are more likely to put themselves into new and challenging social situations throughout life. Learning is by definition a social activity; for instance, we often develop connections with other people who have knowledge we would like to learn, or who are equally interested in learning about a new topic.
Viewing socialization through the educational lens yields corresponding results: we are more likely to participate in social engagements as older adults when we are lifetime learners, probably due to the increased self-esteem that comes with the achievement of a task. Science has shown that aging adults who have strong social connections live longer, and lifetime learning is an ideal way to build those support networks.
Increased self-esteem is arguably one of the most consistent, positive benefits of continuing to learn as we age. Scientists have documented that high achievers are most often individuals who never stop learning. Unfortunately the reverse is also true: low self-esteem, which may well be an outgrowth of a poor learning experience, is likelier to discourage older adults from continuing any sort of formal education.
Ultimately, educators agree on the beneficial qualities that come from lifetime learning. In a study conducted by the Center for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, 92.5% of educators surveyed felt that their teaching imparted greater self-confidence to their students.
It’s clear that continued learning leads to better economic benefits, and is increasingly necessary to stay competitive in the job market. In 1973, 28% of all jobs required some post-secondary training. By 2020, however, it is expected that 73% of jobs will require a certificate or a degree. The latest U.S. Census Data also reflect this trend. In 2012, regardless of gender or ethnic background, salaries were consistently higher with each increased level of post-secondary education.
Continued learning is also beneficial in a fluctuating job market, making you a more adaptable worker who can perform under changing circumstances. High IQ scores, which we now know can be improved, are accurate indicators of upward mobility in the workforce.
On a broader scale, participating in continuing adult education has a powerful impact on poverty. It can increase employability for families who struggle economically, and statistics show that families who recover from poverty have better health. This is good for individuals as well as for society: better healthcare and educational opportunities make it more likely that children born to poor parents are given the tools to do well in school and break the cycle of poverty with their own families.
Lifelong learning benefits students by improving their ability to get a job and succeed in the workforce. It also provides a continual sense of confidence and achievement well beyond our college years. Educational stimulation can help the brain develop new or strengthened connective tissues and help stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, all while creating a stimulating social life at the same time.
Yes, it is true that learning is more difficult as we age, but that is exactly why we should make a point to do it. There are plenty of opportunities around us. Many community colleges, universities, and even libraries offer continuing-education courses to expose students to new career paths, and many go on to pursue a degree in that field. Others take part in book discussion clubs to explore their literary side. Some choose to go online and take advantage of the numerous free education options, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or tutorials on iTunes. Whichever method of knowledge delivery you choose, keep learning something new in order to stay sharp, social, and competitive.