According to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Community Wellness Committee January 2020 Report recommendations, community vitality involves both connectedness and education through life-long learning, for either personal or professional reasons.
Life-long learning is a guiding education principle of the McMaster University Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. At present, 82 of the 609 students in the three-year program are based at the Niagara Regional Campus. Life-long learning for these students is highlighted by understanding that new scientific discoveries will repeatedly change how they should approach caring for their patients. The only way to provide the best care is to be engaged and open to learning about new information and developments throughout our careers. Students are encouraged to take initiative on their own learning and the curriculum is designed to build capacity for self-directed learning as opposed to memorization.
For example, until two decades ago, the brain was thought to be both complex and simple to understand. It was believed that the brain we were born with does not grow or develop, and that the only change over time is nerve cell damage and death as we age.
That teaching was wrong, and we now know that the opposite is true. The brain is an organ that can grow and develop, and the term that has entered research and education about the brain is plasticity – specifically neuroplasticity. Plastic — what does that word convey to you? One implication is of a material that is hard and strong and shiny, like metal but lighter. However, the great advantage of plastic is that you can change its form easily, transforming it into anything from a toy car to a disposable spoon.
Neuroplasticity means that the brain can transform throughout life. The nervous system is not simply like a set of static electric cables running between the brain and other body parts. New networks and pathways of nerve cells develop as a result of learning. For example, when you learn a new skill, your existing neurons form new connections to other existing neurons, which can then be followed more easily the next time you attempt it. This works for everything from learning to drive or learning a new language, to learning how to dance the tango.
In this way, the brain acts like a bee colony. When bees face a new challenge, they communicate with one another until a solution emerges. What is more, once the bee colony has solved a problem, they know how to solve it more quickly the next time it comes around.
One of the most exciting things that research has demonstrated about learning is that there is no upper age limit for neural network formation. Those with a diagnosis of dementia also need continuing opportunities to form new networks, learn and develop.
Throughout our life we should aim to keep our brains and body as strong as possible. Some ways to get the most out of our minds and bodies are to avoid stress, get enough sleep, exercise, avoid smoking, and control blood pressure.
However, we get to a point in life where we cannot increase this strength, but we can slow down the inevitable decline. The difference between the rate of decline with and without brain and body exercise is called the fitness gap. The more we do to close the fitness gap, the better off we will be as we age, ‘adding life to years’, not just years to life – which means having better quality of life for as many years as possible.
It is important to keep our brain active as we age – by learning new skills, such as playing a musical instrument, starting a new business or playing bridge. We should do our best to engage in purposeful work, maintain and increase contact and interaction with other people. This is much easier to do when we care for our hearing and vision so that we can continue receiving stimulation.
The NOTL Community Wellness Committee recommends supporting “the provision of programs supporting life-long learning for all residents. Consider partnership with Niagara College in this development.” For example, the concept of Universities for the Third Age (U3A), first developed in France, is offered in many communities. U3A is an international movement whose aims are the education and stimulation of older adults in the community – those in their third ‘age’ of life. Generally, U3A are groups of older adults that come together to continue their enjoyment of learning subjects of interest to them. An interesting feature of U3A is that there is no distinction between the learners and the teachers – everyone can take a turn at being both if they wish.
Another option is the federal government’s Lifelong Learning Plan, which allows Canadian residents to withdraw funds from their Registered Retirement Savings Plan to help pay for lifelong learning. However, the funds can only be used for formal learning programs at designated educational institutions.
Learning does not need to take place in a formalized setting – one can just as easily exercise our brain through reading the newspaper, playing mahjong, working at a part-time job, or pursuing a hobby.
Life-long learning is ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated seeking of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. It enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, but also self-sustainability, as well as competitiveness and employability. Life-long learning is a key component in the formula that helps close the fitness gap and add life to years.
Larry W. Chambers has authored 175 articles and books concerning disease prevention (e.g. dementia), quality improvement in long-term care homes and innovative approaches for continuing professional development. He is research director of the Niagara Regional Campus, School of Medicine, McMaster University. Eva Liu and Hanna Levy are medical students at the Niagara Regional Campus of the McMaster University School of Medicine. They are interested in improving community wellness of frail older adults in NOTL by narrowing the fitness (physical and brain) gap, diversifying housing options for older adults, and increasing economic activity within the community that also increases ability of our minds to interact with people and ideas.