As researchers learn more about how the brain learns, it has become more apparent that lifelong learning is not only possible, but is needed for optimal brain health as you age. In fact, the more you continue to learn as you get older, the longer your brain will be likely to continue functioning without decline well into old age.
How Adult Brains Learn
Scientists used to think that the brain stopped making new neurons after adolescence, but people actually continue to develop new neurons throughout adulthood as they have new experiences and are exposed to new information. This only makes sense, because people experience changes and new experiences all throughout their lives that they need to assimilate, process, and to which they need to adjust.
It can seem harder to learn when you are an adult for several reasons, however. First, the previous connections in our brains can make them “noisy,” or cause them to interfere with the new information you want to learn. In other words, you already have so much information in your brain that it takes some effort to hold on to and integrate the new information.
Second, adults have put many patterns of thought on auto-pilot because they have gone over them many times by adulthood and don’t really need to figure things out as much as when they were younger and everything was new. For those areas on auto-pilot, adults are less likely to retain new information because they are not really engaged there.
Unless they consciously go back to an area they feel they have mastered and approach it from a new direction mentally, new learning is not likely to take place. The adult brain is less plastic and more rigid than younger brains. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to learn new things. Adults are fully capable of learning at their own pace, and they are more likely to know how they learn best than those who are younger.
Preventing Mental Decline
Adult learning is vital for a number of reasons. Adults’ lives are not immune to changes like new relationships, new experiences or a new career. Learning is necessary to continue to grow as things change in necessary ways. Continued learning is now believed to be linked with better mental function as we get older. In fact, adult education may actually prevent cognitive decline.
Studies are beginning to show that in the absence of continued learning, cognitive decline is more common and more severe than when learning continues to take place. People with mentally demanding jobs were less likely to experience cognitive decline in their 60s and 70s, and those who retired from mentally stimulating jobs had higher rates of decline as they aged.
Learning From Life vs. Continuing Education
While adults can and do continue to learn from their experiences and pick up new skills that are useful in their careers and personal lives, continuing education also has a role to play. Courses taught by instructors can help adults learn more effectively by using methods and pacing geared to older learners.
Continuing education courses also use the expertise of instructors to cut out a lot of the mental floundering and distraction that can take place when adults try to learn things on their own. Providing repetition, accountability and reinforcement are just some of the ways continuing education can maximize adult learning so that new information can be used to keep growing in your career.
View open courses at CCSU to see how continuing education can boost your learning–and your career.