Lifelong Learning Improves Mental Function

February 17, 2021 Joe Brady

According to the World Health Organization,  active aging is defined as “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age.”   People can stay active throughout their lifespans by participating in social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and civic affairs. That can include paid and volunteer work as well as regular physical exercise.  From the WHO perspective, “health” includes physical, mental, and social well-being and encourages older adults to stay as active as possible to extend healthy life expectancy. 

European countries launched University of the Third Age (U3A) courses for older adults in 1973 in France. These programs have spread across much of the world and the sight of older adults attending classes along with their younger classmates is becoming a familiar sight on many campuses.  Courses for older adults can range from current events, tai chi, yoga, art, music, literature, humanities, social sciences, and even to more rigorous science and technology subjects.

Although the life-long learning trend is likely to continue as baby boomers age,  actual research showing the benefits of continuing education in older adults is still limited.

Gerontology research has shown that lifelong learning programs can help reduce cognitive decline due to aging as well as helping older adults deal with depression and poor self-image although controlled studies of lifelong learning remain scarce.

In a recent study that won the 2020 Innovative Research in Aging Award, researchers compared cognitive function in older adults. 

Researchers examined how lifelong learning impacts older adults’ cognitive health. Participants took classes for two hours, once a week for 15 weeks, and participants were given an additional 8 to 10 hours of homework per week. Only eighteen older adults participated (average age 69) so that these results will need to be replicated in larger studies but the results in this study are quite promising.

Participants showed improvements in cognitive functioning over participants’ baseline scores. More specifically, cognitive control, working memory, and episodic memory improved by the intervention’s mid-point. Significantly, spending more hours on coursework was also associated with better cognitive function.

The aim of this study was to mimic the course load of younger students. In the first intervention, six older adults (average age 66) participated in Spanish, art, and iPad classes, and their performance on cognitive tests was compared to seven older adults in a no-contact control group. Both groups completed pre-, mid-, and post-intervention measures of cognitive performance.

The researchers also compared combined cognitive scores with a separate sample of young, middle age, and older adults who didn’t participate in the intervention. In general, young adults (average age 19) performed the best, followed by middle-aged adults (average age 42), then older adults (average age 70). Older adults who participated in the intervention, however, had cognitive scores closer to those of middle-aged adults.

This research is hopeful but much more research is needed. At the University of Denver, we are currently working on a research study on the effects of lifelong learning on global health issues. We currently have over 1500 participants in the study and we are measuring the effects of the classes they take on cognitive function as well as depression, anxiety, social skills, self-efficacy and sleep problems. By recruiting a larger sample it should make it easier to document the effects of a wide range of course combinations or taking more or fewer courses. 

If you would like more information on the DU study please email the principal investigator Joseph Brady at


Leanos S, Kürüm E, Strickland-Hughes CM . . . & Wu R. The impact of learning multiple real-world skills on cognitive abilities and functional independence in healthy older adults. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2020) 75(6), 1155-1169.