Life-long Learning is Medicine

January 26, 2021 Joe Brady

The Superior Doctor is a Teacher

Ancient Chinese Proverb

“Preventive Medicine is Education”

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop M.D.

Life-long learning programs in the community have a great potential to improve the health and well-being of older adults and is likely to be a growing trend as baby boomers reach retirement age.  However actual research showing the benefits of community education programs in older adults is still limited. Some research has shown that continuing education can help reduce cognitive decline due to aging as well as helping older adults deal with depression and poor self-image although controlled studies lifelong learning programs remain scarce.

A few studies have shown a clear association between continuous participation in lifelong learning courses and the psychological wellbeing of older adults, The results show that Continuous and ongoing participation in lifelong learning programs contribute to the conservation of psychological wellbeing over time. Yet research into the benefits of life-long learning on global health issues such as physical function, pain, depression, anxiety, and measures of social skills are far few and in between.


The Evidence for Life-long Learning at Oxford

Health and well-being can be influenced by a variety of factors. Members of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine are working with colleagues from the Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) team at the University of Oxford and Kellogg College to explore ways in which cultural settings and learning opportunities in community settings can contribute to people’s health and well-being. Their findings form a framework under which the health benefits of lifelong learning can be understood.

In reviewing the available literature  the team at Oxford identified several themes that support health and well-being:

  1. Therapeutic Landscapes or the concept of “nature’s therapy” in classical Chinese medicine. The idea that there is something inherently therapeutic about grass and trees and gardens. This is why exercising outdoors in the park can be so refreshing. Even purely intellectual pursuits can also provide therapeutic landscapes. The Oxford research identified three aspects of the public library that may be therapeutic: the library as a familiar and welcoming environment; a quiet and calm atmosphere; and the empowerment associated with being able to make non-commercial and unpressured decisions about what to read (p. 99). 
  2. Creating a sense of “flow” is an important concept in understanding the effects of lifelong learning: The concept of flow is discussed in an article about therapeutic experiences and is defined as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. When in flow, time passes quickly and individuals cease to feel separate from the task they are undertaking. Concentrating on the activity at hand, one becomes so absorbed that the task feels effortless and other concerns or worries are forgotten. The concept of flow can help to explain how certain activities can be restorative. 
  3. Drawing on Social Capital: Throughout the literature, the importance of socializing, building social networks, and reciprocal relationships, is prominent. Social capital can be understood as the features of society and social organizations that enable that society to function, such as the networks of people who live in a society, social norms, and social trust. The amount of social capital possessed by an individual will depend on the size of the social network they can effectively mobilize. Social capital has been linked to a number of health outcomes through different mechanisms, such as mitigating loneliness and having access to advice. 

Key Concepts in Life-long Learning

In reviewing the literature, the researchers at Oxford have identified five common concepts through which GLAM and life-long learning programs interventions could promote wellbeing:

Knowledge and Skill Acquisition:

Learning helps keep the mind “active” and can be an important therapeutic element for people living with dementia.

Providing Structure and a Sense of Purpose:

Life-long learning programs can offer structure, routine, and purpose. This can be particularly important for those suffering from depression who may struggle with everyday tasks. 

Relaxing and Comforting Environments 

Classes can be environments of enjoyment, relaxation, and comfort offering an escape from the stresses associated with urban life and be a source of pleasure.

Memory, Repetition, and Reminiscence 

Activities that encourage repetition and reminiscence may be particularly therapeutic. With learning new dendrites are developed enhancing the ability of the brain to function and perhaps forestalling the effects of aging and cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Social connection 

Most of the interventions studied involved a strong component of social engagement and interaction which was observed to be a key contributor to health and wellbeing. 

This work is supported by a University of Oxford Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund.


Click here to download the .pdf version of the final GLAM report

> Read the Department for Continuing Education’s article about the GLAM project

> Read about the two workshops we held as part of the GLAM project:

Workshop 1: What have gardens, libraries and museums got to do with your health and wellbeing? – A workshop for members of the public

Workshop 2:  How can gardens, libraries and museums support social prescribing? – A meeting to foster awareness, collaboration and engagement with stakeholders