Memory loss and cognitive decline are just a natural part of getting older, right?
Multiple scientific studies have now proven that our brains are more plastic than we think, and our memory and thinking abilities can even change for the better. I see this every day among our students at the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a membership-based program for individuals 50 years of age and older who are interested in pursuing intellectual interests and enriching their lives through continuing education.
However, this doesn’t just happen on its own. Older adults need to actively work at maintaining their brain health–and doing so takes a “lifelong learning” mindset. In honor of Adult Learners Week, which is Sept. 19-25, I thought it would be useful to share three major but fairly simple things everyone can do to make sure they stay mentally sharp as they age.
1. Stay Physically Active and Find New Ways to Move
As tempting as it might be to become more sedentary because you can’t do the same things you used to the way you used to, it’s so important to stay active. Every physical activity can be adapted to your abilities, and everyone’s bodies are different day to day. Multiple medical studies have shown that the more active you are as you age, the healthier you’ll be for longer.
But did you know that staying physically active–especially if it’s while you’re learning a new activity, sport, or type of exercise–can improve your brain function too? Plus, joining an exercise class, group activity, or sports team is a great social outlet. Which leads us to the second step to stay mentally sharp as you age.
2. Stay Social and Make New Friends
It can be hard to stay social in the same way you used to as you age. However, it’s so important for both our mental and physical health to stay connected and even make new friends.
Strong social ties boost our brain function, whereas social isolation has been shown to increase the likelihood of dementia. The negative health effects of loneliness have been shown to be similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day.
But there are a number of ways to meet like-minded people if you feel like your social circle is shrinking. Meetup groups and organized social activities through your church or other community organization are a great place to start, as are adult education programs. Many universities offer non-academic activities for seniors in addition to their adult education classes, such as theater performances, concerts, and happy hours.
3. Learn New Skills and Maybe Continue Your Education
Learning something new is the best way to keep your mind sharp, hands down–and the great news is, you’re never too old to do it. Even better news: whether you simply want to explore an interest or finish your degree, there are more continuing education options than ever before to fit your budget and schedule.
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, for example, offers lectures and seminars by the outstanding faculty and researchers of the UC San Diego community, as well as local leaders, artists and musicians. These are available to Osher members both on campus and streamed simultaneously via Zoom. Class topics include medicine, science, law and society, history, art and humanities, international relations, literature, politics and social sciences.
If you want to learn more about becoming an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute member, we will be holding an Open House on Sept. 30 with information booths detailing our activities and classes in the upcoming fall quarter. You can attend on campus in person or join us virtually via Zoom. RSVP here to receive additional instructions and the Zoom link.
We as humans have an amazing capacity to pick up new things as we age. Come check out some of the lifelong learning opportunities in your community and surprise yourself.
Isabelle Philipe is the program director for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies.