Think of someone older who inspires you – a family member, colleague, or even a distant friend. Chances are, there’s one thing in common you’d use to describe them. “She was 90 years old, but sharp as a tack!” “I can’t believe he’s still passionate about the business at 75!” Wherever the stories come from, whoever they’re about, they give us something to aspire to.

So what’s the secret of these passionate, driven and switched-on seniors?

It’s something simple, powerful and (often) free of charge – learning.

For most of us, formal learning is a distant memory. You may not have studied since high school or university, some decades ago, with perhaps the exception of an occasional course for work. But there are plenty of reasons that you should consider learning something new again. ‘Lifelong learning’ is the idea that you should never stop studying new things and learning new skills. Hundreds of studies from around the world (and here in Australia) reveal positive impacts on cognitive ability, physical health, social engagement, self-esteem, employability, and economic outcomes.

Benefits for your brain

One of the most interesting areas of investigation is lifelong learning and neuroplasticity. To put it simply, it’s the study of how pushing yourself to learn can help you forge new pathways in your brain. Ongoing learning can dramatically slow cognitive decline in old age. But the key is starting as soon as possible. For example, a 2012 clinical study from top UC Berkeley researchers showed that individuals who keep learning after childhood are less likely to get deposits of the protein plaque that causes Alzheimers. But study lead Susan Landau warned that “our data suggests… that a whole lifetime of engaging in these activities has a bigger effect than being cognitively active just in older age.i ”

Where to start learning again

The good news is that you don’t have to head back to a uni campus and take on a whole degree. There are dozens of structured learning opportunities to suit different people with different lifestyles, schedules and interests.

If you’re looking for something informal you can do anywhere, video lectures are a great place to start. TED talks are expert lectures on hundreds of different topics, designed to “stir your curiosity”. YouTube tutorials, whilst not peer reviewed for the level of expertise involved, allow you to get a bit more hands-on. Try searching YouTube for something you’ve always wanted to learn, followed by ‘tutorial’. For listening while you work or take on chores, NPR podcasts are a popular choice.

Looking for something a little more structured? You may be surprised to find that some of the world’s most highly regarded universities – once highly exclusive (and expensive) – now offer free public courses online. For example, through edX, you can take classes from leading universities including MIT, Harvard, the Sorbonne, ANU and more. Another surprising fact? Many of the people learning to code on free platform Codecademy are over the age of 50.

Sharing the passion

Of course, many benefits of lifelong learning are best realised in person. By attending a live lecture, class or short course, you can also meet people with the same newfound zest for education. With many short courses and providers to choose from, it’s a matter of figuring out what piques your interest. The University of the Third Age is a popular option, not least because it’s run exclusively for and by those aged 50 and over. You can take courses on anything from art and food, to rather niche topics such as how to write a memoir or the theory of personality types.

Whichever path you choose, you can look forward to a renewed sense of curiosity. And if those Berkeley researchers are right, a sharper mind with which to enjoy your golden years.

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This article was written by a third party.

i news.berkeley.edu/2012/01/23/engaged-brain-amyloidalzheimers