What is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy as you age?
Learn something new. According to recent research, challenging your brain by taking it out of its comfort zone can help slow cognitive decline and protect you from common aging diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
In a 2013 study, researchers examined adults ages 60 to 90 who were assigned to learn a new complex skill like digital photography or quilting or to do simpler activities like crossword puzzles. After three months, those learning the more complex skill showed wide-range improvement in overall memory compared to the crossword puzzle group.
There’s even better news. Scientists used to think that after a certain age, the brain lost its neural flexibility (plasticity) required to learn new things. But recent research shows they were wrong. In a 2014 study, scientists found that when many older people learned a new visual task, there was a significantly associated change in the white matter of the brain—where communication takes place.
These and other studies reveal that the adage “you can't teach an old dog new tricks” is completely false, and further, that getting yourself back into the classroom may be one of the best ways to preserve your brain health as you age.
1. Establish Your “Why”
Going back to school can be exciting and uplifting, but it can also be scary and difficult at times. Knowing why you’re doing it can help you hang in there and see it through.
Ask yourself, “Why is this important to me?” Maybe you want to learn a new skill, start a new career or business, or meet new people. You may have a dream you want to pursue or a skill that you need to remain competitive in your current job.
Whatever the reason, write it down and put it somewhere you can see it as you move forward.
2. Decide What You Want Out of Your Education
Now that you know why you want to go back to school, it’s time to clarify what you want to get out of it. If you want to learn digital photography so you can enjoy taking pictures, that’s different than if you want to go back and finish a degree you started years ago.
Take some time to reflect on what you want your future to look like. Where does your education fit into that? Will this help you embark on a second career, start a business, or simply find more joy in life? Write down exactly what you want to happen, then move to the next step.
3. Determine What Classes You Want to Take
It makes sense that you’d take courses you’re interested in, but you also want to keep in mind what you need for the future you envision for yourself.
If you’re trying to finish a degree, your class schedule may be mostly determined by the curriculum for that degree. If you want to start a second career, you’ll need to find out what that requires before you sign up for classes. Perhaps you’d be best taking courses to improve your computer skills or to expand your business management knowledge. If you're just looking to expand your horizons by learning something new, focus on what intrigues you.
Should you get a degree or simply take a few courses? In general, degree programs are more complex, but they can help open up more job opportunities. On the other hand, a single course or certification program may be all you need to become more attractive to employers. Choose based on your learning and professional goals.
4. Check Your Schedule
Before you sign up for classes, consider your current schedule. It's easy to forget that school can require quite a bit of time outside of the actual classes. You will probably need time to study and do homework as well.
Ask yourself: When am I most available to take classes? What obligations may prevent me from studying or turning in my assignments on time? Your answers to these questions can have an impact on what types of classes you choose to take.
5. Decide Where You Will Take Your Classes
Educational opportunities have changed quite a bit over the last few decades. Thanks to the Internet, you now have the option of taking online courses in addition to in-person classes.
In general, you will find the classes you need at these locations:
- Colleges and Universities: This offers both in-person and online courses, including those that lead to certifications, undergraduate, and graduate degrees.
- Community Colleges: These are great places to find continuing education opportunities. Particularly if you are looking for technical training, computer skills, or even art and photography classes, you can find them here. Of course, you can also get your two-year degree, and these colleges are likely to have certification programs as well.
- Online Schools: While traditional colleges often offer online courses, you can also find them at virtual schools that operate strictly online. These are often easier and more convenient for those with busy lifestyles.
If you have a college or university near you, find out what they have to offer and when the classes take place. Ask about online options. You can also find a list of senior education opportunities in your state at seniorresource.com.
6. Look Again at Online Learning
If you’ve never taken an online course before, you may be a little hesitant to try one.
The truth is that many older adults benefit greatly from online education. The classes are more accessible since all you have to do is connect to the Internet. This option can also help you feel more comfortable going back to school again since you won't have to worry about being the oldest person in the room.
Another benefit is that online courses and degree programs are typically designed for working adults and other nontraditional students who desire a less structured experience. The pace is a bit more relaxed. While you’ll still have deadlines to meet, it will be up to you when to get the work done.
If you are retired and have more time on your hands, you may be perfectly suited to take an accelerated online course. These allow you to proceed through the coursework at a faster pace if you want to, allowing you to finish the courses and potentially get your degree sooner.
If you’re a bit nervous about the technical aspect of taking an online class, don’t be. They are more advanced than they used to be, and most programs are very user-friendly. If you have basic typing skills, you know how to use Microsoft Word, you can email, and you can download and install software, you’ll be fine. If you need help with these steps, someone at the educational institution is usually available.
Finally, keep in mind that online classes are, in general, less expensive than in-person ones, which can make them more accessible to older adults. If you think you will miss the in-person interaction—or if that is one of the main reasons you want to go back to school—then check into your local colleges and universities first for in-person classes.
7. Consider Your Budget
Education costs money, so you'll want to determine how much you feel comfortable spending. If you're sold on a college degree, check with your institution of choice about financial aid options. Then take into account your experience. You may not realize it, but many educational institutions grant college credit for military, leadership, healthcare, and many other types of experience.
If you’re still working, check with your company about any tuition reimbursement programs they may have. Many of these often go unused, so you may be surprised at what is available.
There are also many scholarships available for adults. You can find some options at Scholarships.com and Studentloanhero.com. Keep in mind too that many colleges and universities offer reduced or free college tuition to senior citizens (typically 60 years and older). Find the options in your state at thepennyhoarder.com.
Next, look into any grants that may be available. These can be even better than loans as you don’t have to pay them back.
Finally, if you don't need a particular degree or certificate, you may be interested in free online courses for seniors. Many websites and organizations make lifelong learning possible for everyone. Find several examples at moneypantry.com.
There are numerous benefits to going back to school as a mature student, and more and more people are returning to the classroom, both online and in class. Help facilitate a career change, open a new business, or simply pursue an interest that you never had the time to invest in earlier. Plus, studies have shown a correlation between higher education and health-driven decisions, with adults with higher education being more likely to live healthier lifestyles. It’s never too late to learn.
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Park, Denise C., Jennifer Lodi-Smith, Linda Drew, Sara Haber, Andrew Hebrank, Gérard N. Bischof, and Whitley Aamodt. “The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults.” Psychological Science 25, no. 1 (2013), 103-112. doi:10.1177/0956797613499592.
Yotsumoto, Yuko, Li-Hung Chang, Rui Ni, Russell Pierce, George J. Andersen, Takeo Watanabe, and Yuka Sasaki. “White matter in the older brain is more plastic than in the younger brain.” Nature Communications 5, no. 1 (2014). doi:10.1038/ncomms6504.