Lifelong learning improves physical, mental health in seniors

SPONSORED CONTENT: Story by Penny Stine for New Dimensions

While there is no little pill to take to ensure a happy retirement, research continues to demonstrate that the benefits of lifelong learning are trifold: sharper minds, better social connections and increased physical activity.

“Until 15 years ago, we thought the brain was a static organ,” said Dr. Phil Mohler, medical director for the Mesa County Health Department, who teaches several classes for New Dimensions, a local program geared for lifelong learning opportunities for seniors. “In the last few years, we’ve learned that the brain has the ability to change.”

Thanks to new technology in the form of a functional MRI of the brain, researchers have been able to determine that adults who continue to learn and exercise their brains have better brain health and function.

“What we do in life can actually change the brain,” Mohler said. “You can build a bigger brain. The brain is plastic; it’s malleable.”

Programs like New Dimensions, which offers more than 85 classes on a wide variety of subjects, gives seniors the opportunity to learn about topics which interest them. Although some classes, like “Navigating the Mangled Medical Milieu,” which is taught by Dr. Mohler and is geared toward helping seniors navigate the medical system, are more practical and will help seniors in day-to-day situations, others are simply for the curious who would like to learn more about something that interests them. Classes range from Native American flute history, The Old Spanish Trail, Art on the Corner, wine, genealogy, meditation and many other subjects.

Most of the classes at New Dimensions involve time for questions and discussion, and the goal is to keep participants engaged with each other and with the world around them.

“One of the things we know is that if you keep older adults stimulated, you can stave off the cognitive decline that tends to occur,” Mohler said. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Some of the classes, like birding, fly fish casting or the local hikes and walks, involve physical activity, which is another great benefit for seniors.

“If you don’t use muscles, you get frail,” Mohler said, adding that increased frailty leads to falls, which can lead to fractures. “Keeping older folks moving is an important part of healthy aging.”

One of the challenging aspects to retirement is how quickly a person’s social circle starts to shrink. Without the interaction of coworkers, older adults may can feel more alone and isolated, especially if they lose a spouse, or if they’ve moved here to be closer to their children, and they’ve moved away from long-time neighbors and friends elsewhere. Lifelong learning classes can help retirees make connections with other people who share their sense of curiosity about life, or at least about a particular subject.

When New Dimensions first began offering classes in 2014, one of the first classes was a beginning bridge class. That class grew and spawned a bridge group that meets weekly to play.
“New Dimensions has created a community of learners, people who know one another through the classes,” said Jan Henwood, who initiated the program after being part of a similar lifelong learning institute affiliated with the University of Denver. When New Dimensions began, it offered 16 classes and had 65 interested members. Members join simply by paying $50 for a session, which enables them to take as many classes as they’d like . There are now more than 420 members.

Social connections through shared interests at lifelong learning classes can reduce the sense of isolation and depression that some seniors feel. Interacting with others while learning something new, whether it’s about history, computers, healthy eating or moose on Grand Mesa, can give an increased sense of purpose and vitality. On top of all that, it’s fun.

Most classes at New Dimensions are offered during the day, and are held at various churches around the valley. More classes are being held in Palisade and Fruita, with the intent of offering more access to older adults in those areas.

New Dimensions has recently become affiliated with Colorado Mesa University and many classes will now be held on campus. Classes will be on the New Dimensions website, on Sept. 11, and people can begin registering online for classes on Sept. 18. There is limited walk-in registration for those who have no internet access on Sept. 14 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Grand Valley, 536 Ouray Ave.

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