The Benefits of Lifelong Learning — How Continued Learning in Adulthood Helps Keep Your Brain Healthy

Better recently hosted “Benefits of Lifelong Learning,” a virtual discussion moderated by Susan B. Noyes and sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association. The event featured speakers from the Alzheimer’s Association, the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Collectively, they showcased how the intersection of research, philanthropy, and equitable care may help combat Alzheimer’s and all other forms of dementia.

Delia Jervier, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association introduced recent findings from the organization’s special report: “Race, Ethnicity, and Alzheimer’s in America.” Jervier explained that this report has led to some striking revelations that have highlighted the need for more culturally competent care and resources for patients of color.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest showed that many institutions had to confront the long-standing issues of race and inequity,” Jervier said. “When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, the same is true.”

According to the report’s finding, Alzheimer’s is often diagnosed at a later stage in underserved communities and caregivers of color often experience higher levels of physical and emotional stress in comparison to white caregivers.

“​​What came out of that particular survey was that Black caregivers are more likely to provide more care to their loved one than their white counterparts. But they are less likely to take advantage of respite services,” Jervier explained.

The event’s second speaker, Dr. Emily Rogalski from the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology at Northwestern University, detailed her work of studying SuperAgers—adults over the age of 80 who have the cognitive ability of someone 20 to 30 years their junior.

“So this is your neighbor, your aunt, your uncle, who you say ‘Oh my gosh, you would never know that person is 80. They act like they’re 50.’” Rogalski said.

While Northwestern’s SuperAger study has been based solely in Chicago, it will soon be expanded to five sites within the U.S. and Canada and recruit 500 new SuperAgers. Dr. Rogalski noted that further study of these individuals may prove to be very fruitful in informing future Alzheimer’s research.

“We’re just starting to understand the special genetics and protective factors that might allow SuperAgers to maintain that memory performance,” she said. “We see that the SuperAgers have less what we call tau tangles, which are features that are described in Alzheimer’s disease, but also common in lower amounts in average aging.”

Carol Dietz from the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning promoted the organization’s courses for adults over 50. From baseball to physics, participants have a wide variety of subjects to choose from. All courses are peer-led and conducted in a discussion-based learning environment, Dietz said.

“Our motto is respect, positivity, and humor. You have to laugh at our age,” Dietz said. “So you will find that we leave our resumes at the door, but we contribute our experience. We contribute our lifelong learning along with our professional expertise.”

“Benefits of Lifelong Learning” ended with a brief Q and A session, in which the speakers further discussed the importance of continued learning, regardless of age or cognitive ability.

“It’s the act of new learning that is important to the brain, not necessarily whether it is knitting or photography or learning a new language. So this idea of staying engaged is really important,” Rogalski said. “We know that exercise is important and we know that all of these things help to stimulate new growth in the brain. We’ve learned over the years that new growth is possible, even in our later years.”

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Melissa Perry is a senior journalism and international studies major from Northwestern University. Raised in Mt. Sterling, Illinois, Melissa is a proud Midwest girl through and through with a lifelong love for dance and the arts!

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