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Report: Researchers Stoke Debate on Brain Health


Lifelong learners engage in high levels of mental stimulation. They are also community-minded, physically active and creatively engaged, according to a new study by Elderhostel, the American not-for-profit educational organization.

The 2007 report, Mental Stimulation and Lifelong Learning Activities in the 55+ Population, is the most extensive segmentation study of late-life learning ever conducted.

Researchers say that their findings raise questions about the widespread "use it or lose it" notion of brain health, suggesting it may be too limited.

Based on a national sample of Americans 55 and older, the study identifies five segments of lifelong learners: "focused mental achievers" (13 per cent of the population), "contented recreational learners" (34 per cent), "anxious searchers" (23 per cent), "isolated homebodies" (18 per cent), and "pessimists" (11 per cent).

Focused mental achievers and contented recreational learners are highly active and deeply committed to lifelong learning. Anxious searchers and isolated homebodies are moderately engaged in mental stimulation and lifelong learning. Pessimists participate only minimally in lifelong learning activities because of poor health or scant resources.

The first two segments of lifelong learners – focused mental achievers and contented recreational learners – comprise 47 per cent of the 55+ population. They demonstrate extraordinarily high levels of activity, as well as high levels of formal education, and high measures of optimism and life satisfaction.

And, not surprisingly, they account for 84 per cent of Elderhostel participants.

In addition to educational travel, focused mental achievers and contented recreational learners participate in a wide range of activities. Many of these activities combine at least two of the following: mental stimulation, social engagement, physical activity, and creative expression.

Based on the findings, researchers suggest a more nuanced restatement of the "use it or lose it" proposition of possible brain health, to include a commitment to lifelong learning, and a "balanced program of brain exercise" blending mental stimulation, social engagement, physical activity and creative expression.