Imagine the excitement of exploring the historical and cultural treasures of the Tuscan countryside, the thrill of taking part in a lively discussion about the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh, or the satisfaction that comes from helping a reluctant student discover the value of education. There’s no doubt such experiences can act as a kind of health club for your body, your mind and your spirit.

Thanks to a vast array of opportunities available in the lifelong learning world today, older adults now have the chance to make their later years far more exciting than they ever dreamed possible. Incorporating lifelong learning into our “After-50” years means our minds will be more stimulated, our bodies more active, and our spirits more fulfilled.

The Importance of Lifelong Learning
A healthy Mind/Body/Spirit connection is critical to getting the most out of life at any age. As people age, however, this connection becomes even more important. Lifelong learning, as older adults are discovering, can help strengthen this connection.

There are many different ways, both formal and informal, to engage in lifelong learning. Reading a newspaper, a good book, or working crossword puzzles are all considered informal lifelong learning. So, in some ways, just about everyone is a lifelong learner.

A study conducted for AARP by Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc. in 1999 bears this out. It showed that over 90% of surveyed adults age 50 and over, do plan to continue learning as they age. When asked why, participants said they wanted to keep up with what’s going on in the world. They also wanted to continue their personal and spiritual growth, and have fun by learning something new.

The Mind
Research during the 1990’s, a decade of pioneering brain research, proved that a stimulated mind promotes a healthy brain. These studies were conducted at many research facilities including Harvard, Duke and Johns Hopkins Universities. They showed that keeping older brains stimulated helps retain mental alertness as people age. The brain’s physical anatomy actually responds to enriching mental activities. Scientists have discovered that the brain, even an aging brain, can grow new connections and pathways when challenged and stimulated.

In the words of Dr. Paul Nussbaum, Director of the Aging Research and Education Center in Pittsburgh, PA, “…every time your heart beats, 25% of that blood goes right to the brain. But while exercise is critical, it may be education that is more important. In the 21st century, education and information may become for the brain what exercise is for the heart.” Just like the human heart, our brains need to be nurtured. So lifelong learning can be considered a health club for our minds.

The Body
Along with keeping our minds alert and stimulated as we age, everyone knows the importance of keeping our bodies active. Lifelong learning programs offer many ways to incorporate activity into our daily lives. Along with more traditional courses, most programs offer a variety of fitness classes such as swimming, aerobics, walking clubs, hiking, birding, bicycling and yoga. Classes in spirituality, meditation, stress reduction, and outdoor programs, just to name a few, round out the stimulating curriculum. Taking part in group classes helps people stick with it, leading to even more activity.

So lifelong learning is not only a health club for our minds, but for our bodies, as well. Regardless of our level of activity, lifelong learning gets us moving which is especially valuable as we age.

The Spirit
Finally, lifelong learning engages the spirit. It provides the needed social interaction that is often lacking as people age. Older adults join lifelong learning programs as much for the social aspects as for the learning. Outdoor programs, field trips, luncheons, parties, and travel far and near, give mature adults the opportunity to make new friends, engage in stimulating give-and-take discussion, and share in life’s ups and downs with like-minded people. Life gets a little overwhelming at times. How better to get through those challenges than by sharing them with other lifelong learners?

Making lifelong learning part of one’s later years also fosters a sense of personal empowerment and increased self-esteem. It ensures continued growth and intellectual stimulation, leading to a more fulfilling, enjoyable and enriched lifestyle. So, lifelong learning is truly a health club for the spirit as well.

Lifelong learners discover that their intellectual, social, spiritual and physical horizons have expanded beyond any previous expectations. David, a lifelong learner from New York, concurs. “We have a fantastic program for personal discovery,” he says. “We base everything on the belief that our capacity to learn and grow does not decrease as our years increase. In fact, through learning and the adventures we embark on, we actually embrace self-fulfillment.”

Conclusion
Lifelong learning after age 50 is vitally important. It helps develop natural abilities, immerse people in the wonders of life, stimulate natural curiosity about the world, increase wisdom, enable people to use their experience to make the world a better place, and help older adults face the inevitable changes of society.

Without a doubt, lifelong learning is truly a health club for our minds, bodies and spirits. Using this health club every day helps ensure that our later years will be richer, more stimulated, and far more fulfilled.

Author's Bio: 

Nancy Merz Nordstrom, M. Ed., is the author of Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years, published by Sentient Publications in Boulder, Colorado.

Learning Later, Living Greater introduces readers to the ideas and benefits of later-life learning. It challenges people to become involved in meaningful new avenues of productivity: learning for the sheer joy of learning something new, educational travel, volunteerism, civic action, and more. It shows them how to stay mentally and spiritually young. Learning Later, Living Greater is the guidebook for transforming the after-work years into a richly satisfying period of personal growth and social involvement.

Merz Nordstrom also directs the Elderhostel Institute Network for Elderhostel, Inc., North America's largest educational travel organization for older adults. She offers counseling to new start-up programs, provides resources and facilitates communication among more than 380 Lifelong Learning programs across the U.S. and Canada, and develops links between these programs and similar programs in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. She has also worked closely with developers establishing lifelong learning programs in Japan.

Nancy blogs and writes columns for several online sites that focus on adults over the age of 50. These sites include www.eons.com - www.egenerations.comwww.successtelevision.comwww.blifetv.com and www.growingbolder.com. She maintains a web site at www.learninglater.com
that provides information for the general public.

Merz Nordstrom has been interviewed extensively by the media about the learning in retirement movement. Articles have appeared in many newspapers and periodicals, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. She has done numerous radio interviews, local TV shows, and was a guest on the CNN Financial News TV show "Your Money."

A dedicated lifelong learner, Nancy returned to school after the unexpected death of her first husband, and at age 53, earned a M.Ed. in Adult Education. As a later-life student she became aware of the opportunities and challenges facing older adults, and has dedicated herself to the belief that lifelong learning is both empowering and life-affirming, regardless of age.