Third Age Learning and Brain Plasticity

The University of Strathclyde has recently hosted a week of activities for a group of academics from Eastern Europe - Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, under the aegis of Tempus Third Age Learning.  As a teacher of older adults since 1991 in the University's Centre for Lifelong Learning I think I have learned a lot about methods that are effective, really draw older adults in and add to the richness of their lives.

My background is psychology and I have developed over the years an intense interest in how psychologists and neuroscientists are working together and overthrowing many of the myths about the ageing brain. What heartens me most is an understanding of neuroplasticity - that is, the ability of the brain to develop throughout life and indeed till the end of life. This does not depend on doing crossword puzzles - although they do no harm - but involves a raft of lifestyle activities and practices. These include a good anti-oxidant diet to mitigate free radical brain damage, regular exercise to enrich the brain's oxygen supply, social engagement to generate the neurotransmitters that raise mood and confidence, new activities or learning that stimulate the brain's neural networks to grow or existing networks to stay strong. There is mounting evidence that the more education and ongoing learning in your life the more you build what is called 'cognitive reserve' (protection that slows decline or mitigates against cell loss).  That is why I believe so strongly in the potential for appropriate learning experiences to transform later life.

However, meeting delegates from other cultures with little history of Third Age learning, made me aware also of the power of culture to shape the way we perceive the world and beliefs about whether there is any point in learning in later life. In Glasgow, although Strathclyde University runs a very successful programme for older adults, the social class and previous learning experiences of the people enrolling are not typical of the general population. They tend to have received higher education or have been in work where they have had opportunities to accumulate qualifications, learn and earn more. The challenge for us and for new countries to Third Age learning is to find ways to reach people who are not switched on to the benefits of learning - the social, emotional, intellectual benefits and sense of wellbeing. Recently, the Scottish Minister for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil, highlighted that depression, not dementia, was the biggest problem facing many older people in Scotland, during a keynote speech at the seventh Scottish Older People’s Assembly. See

Creating learning communities to suit people, starting where they are, not where you want them to be, would be one  positive step in the right direction to create a society where older people do not feel that life is being stripped of meaning. Alternatively, they would be supported to find new roles and purposes for their lives, remain contributing citizens and engaged in the social world till life is over.

The one page attachment illustrates brain plasticity and asks how knowledge of this might change teaching and learning.

Read more about the Tempus event and see the full programme on the CR&DALL site -


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