Live and Learn

An active mind and a quest for knowledge can pay healthy dividends — now and in the future.

At 40, Cel Smith was newly divorced and working hard to raise her young son on her own. A high school English teacher in Hopkins, Minn., Smith easily could have pointed to her already-hectic life as an excuse for narrowing, rather than broadening, her horizons. After all, who has the time and energy for night classes when you’re spending all day just trying to survive? But she knew that the benefits of lifelong learning – especially during difficult times – were worth the effort. So she decided to take up the harp.

“I played the clarinet when I was younger, but I’ve always loved the sound of string instruments. So I rented a harp and started taking lessons,” Smith recalls. Learning to play the notes, master the fingerings and create varied tones on the instrument wasn’t easy, but it helped her through a tough period. “I knew that if I found something I liked to do, I would have more energy,” she says. “It was therapeutic.”

Now 56, Smith continues to take on new challenges. She admits that it’s nerve-wracking to try something that requires skills she may not have, but in her eyes, avoiding that risk poses more troubling liabilities: “You can get too comfortable with the same routine,” she says.

People who make room in their lives for lifelong learning gain more than just knowledge: They break out of their comfort zones, invite creative energy into their lives and dissuade boredom from loitering on their doorstep. They also reap myriad mental-health benefits, from improved memory and mood to reduced age-related mental decline.

Smart Move

Research by Claremont Graduate University psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial, 1991), suggests that people who regularly challenge themselves with tasks that require significant skill and mental engagement are happier than those who choose more passive pleasures. And those who pursue formal education may see even bigger gains. A 2005 study published in the Review of Economic Studies found that each extra year in school could extend life expectancy by up to a year and a half.

And even if you don’t have time for a class, you can find smaller windows of opportunity for learning. Grab a section of the paper you don’t normally read or work a crossword puzzle while you have your morning coffee. Maximize your mental workout by tackling the puzzle with your nondominant hand. This practice engages your brain more fully and stretches it in new synaptic directions.

Learning may also ease the aging process. A 2003 study conducted by a team of neurologists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y., and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who regularly participate in activities that challenge their mental faculties can lower their risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia by as much as 75 percent. The findings support the theory that learning helps develop new neural pathways in the brain and strengthens existing ones. The study also concluded that physical activities requiring mental concentration, such as dancing or gardening, can help postpone age-related diseases.

“It might be trite to say that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” says Ely Meyerson, assistant provost of the Lifelong Learning Society at Florida Atlantic University. “But [learning] does seem to help with aging.” One persuasive bit of anecdotal evidence: the student who recently enrolled in one of the program’s courses – at age 103.

Bulk Up Your Brain

Thomas Crook, PhD, author of The Memory Advantage: Improve Your Memory, Mood and Confidence Throughout Life (SelectBooks, 2007), argues that learning new skills helps prevent the approximately 60 percent decline in certain kinds of short-term memory that occurs between the ages of 25 and 65.

Spending just 20 to 30 minutes focused on a challenging mental task, whether it’s completing a word puzzle or memorizing the hometown team’s latest baseball statistics, can make a difference, Crook says. “You’ll see benefits in a short time – even just two or three weeks.”

If the idea of a classroom makes you shudder, or if crosswords leave you cold, you still have plenty of learning options – from learning a new language or joining a book club to rediscovering a long-lapsed hobby.

Find something that interests or intrigues you, and then begin looking for ways to engage your learning potential. Keep in mind: You’re unlikely to bolster your quality of life with learning experiences that you find tedious or stressful. So create a goal that’s meaningful and exciting to you, whether that’s memorizing a Shakespearean sonnet or learning to locate the major constellations. Then commence your studies (or practice) however you see fit.

Structuring your explorations around some favorite activity or enticing event is one easy way to build learning momentum. For example, if you enjoy gardening, you might want to sign up for a class on canning and freezing your own upcoming vegetable harvest. Or if you love to travel and you’re headed to France next season, you could prepare for the trip by studying French at a community college, listening to a podcast about art at the Louvre or picking up a book about French cooking. Your preparation will make your trip more rewarding. But perhaps more important, you’ll begin enriching your daily life in the here and now. And that’s likely to give rise to even more enthusiastic learning.

“It’s just like when you’re playing a sport that you love – you’re exercising, but it doesn’t seem like exercise,” says Ed Abeyta, director of student services at the University of California, San Diego Extension. “Learning is about finding experiences that engage our mind. And that’s something we can define on our own terms.”

No matter what sparks your own love for learning, when you tend that flame through continuous exploration, you’ll reap benefits that leave you wanting to discover even more. Cel Smith, who’s now working toward her PhD in education – for fun – can happily attest to that. “I’m always willing to make time for something that energizes me. And learning has always done that for me.”

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Erin Peterson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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