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Can Learning Make you Healthy, as Well as Wise?

August 27, 2019

It’s back to school time! Think it's too late to learn something new? Think again!

There's no need to stop learning once you’ve gotten your diploma. Learning is a natural life-long process. And, it doesn’t have to happen in a stuffy classroom or ivy-covered halls.

Chances are that much of the knowledge and skills you use every day—driving a car, changing a diaper, paying bills—were learned outside of formal schooling.

Have you always wanted to grow your own vegetables, learn Tai Chi, or invest in the stock market? Here’s why you may not want to put it off any longer—Learning can be good for your health.

What Happens to Your Brain When You Learn?

Mechanical brainAdult brains have about 86 billion nerve cells, called neurons. Each neuron is connected to thousands of others—7,500 on average—forming a network of pathways. Neurons send signals along these pathways to communicate between different areas of the brain, making it possible for us to think, feel, and act.

Scientists used to think that, after childhood, our brains stopped growing. Not so!

Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the process by which the adult brain adapts in response to new experiences.

When we gain new knowledge or practice a new skill, our neurons form new patterns of pathways. We may even create new neurons. With practice, the new pathways get stronger, and activities that once were challenging become easier.

Does It Matter What You Learn?

It doesn’t so much matter what we learn, it’s the act of learning that has such a powerful impact.

Enhancing our mental abilities, researchers say, requires novelty, focused attention, and challenge. Learning either quilting or digital photography, for example, produced significant improvements in cognitive ability in a study of older adults compared to those who just reminisced, played games, or did easy puzzles.

So whatever you choose to learn should be a challenge—but a reachable one—that matches your interests, strengths, and needs.

3 Ways Learning Can Help Improve Your Health

1. Keeps Your Brain Sharp

Human brains can grow at any age

Did You Know?
Brains Can Grow at Any Age

Evidence shows that regardless
of age, brains can shrink when
they lack mental stimulation—
and can grow in an environment
of discovery, learning, and challenge.

Regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities can improve cognitive abilities, such as memory and reasoning skills.

In one study of U.S. adults cognitive training significantly improved mental skills regardless of age, gender, mental status, health status or education. Ten years later, all of the participants reported greater ease with their daily activities—and had retained most of their cognitive gains.

Intellectually challenging work or hobbies can even help reduce the risk for some diseases that affect the brain, and may slow their progression.

Scientists think that cognitive activities increase the brain’s complexity and protect it by creating a "cognitive reserve." This helps the brain compensate for health conditions that affect it.

2. Manages Your Stress Levels

Mental stimulation can help manage physical and emotional symptoms of stress. Even reading for several minutes reduced heart rate, stress hormones, and feelings of anxiety, a study of executives showed.

Learning enhances self-esteem, a sense of purpose and hope, and feelings of competency, according to a multinational study of adults participating in a wide range of personal and professional educational activities. They reported improved well-being and ability to cope with stress—including chronic illness and disability.

On a practical level, learning new job skills—upskilling—can help us cope with the challenge of rapid changes in technology and work culture.

In addition, learning broadens our scope of knowledge and experience and gives us a different perspective on our problems, possibly leading to new solutions.

3. Helps You Take Better Care of Your Body

People with higher levels of formal education tend to be healthier and live longer. Part of this advantage comes from lifelong learning—continuing to learn after completing schooling.

Common benefits of lifelong learning reported by people of all ages, occupations, and levels of education, include self-understanding and independent thought. Critical thinking skills increase our ability to understand and evaluate health messages.

This health literacy can prompt us to adopt healthier behaviors, such as being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and wearing seat belts.

It can also boost our confidence so that we are active participants in our health care decisions, including dealing more effectively with illnesses in ourselves and our loved ones. 

Want to Get Started?

Most adults in the U.S. participate in some kind of learning activity for either personal or professional growth according to the Pew Research Center.

So don't just wave the kids off to school, join them.

Here at Baystate

Mini-Medical School
Mini Medical School is taught by physicians and other clinical experts who explain the science of medicine in layman’s terms so participants can make more informed decisions about their healthcare.

Health and Wellness Classes
Baystate offers a variety of classes and events year-round, including parenting education, support groups, and community wellness events.

Who Teaches Our Teachers?

Dr Hoar Teaching Problem Solving

Our faculty at UMass Medical
School-Baystate campus go to
school too—to learn how to be
better teachers and researchers.

Online

Khan Academy
Video lessons on key concepts in topics such as math, science, the humanities and languages

edX
2400+ courses from top universities such as Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Berkeley, and The Sorbonne on computer science, languages, arts, medicine, engineering, psychology, writing, marketing

TED Talks
Thousands of short videos about business, science, psychology, and global issues from recognized experts and others

In Your Community

Many organizations offer opportunities to learn: CPR, canning veggies, pickle ball, guest lectures, computer skills, and more.

Local artisans often give lessons—maybe you'd like to try knitting, glassblowing, pottery, or ukulele? 

Check out museums, libraries, community centers, city parks, churches, and recreation departments.

Most universities and community colleges offer classes especially for community members. Some may allow you to audit courses or take them for credit.