Lifelong learning and health

 

Sir, – I am delighted to see that Age Action has made a recommendation for the 2016 Budget to the Department of Education to increase budgets for lifelong learning (“Age Action highlights ‘huge strain’ of cuts on older people”, September 20th).

Providing additional support and resources for lifelong learning are essential if the Government is serious about realising the objectives of the National Positive Ageing Strategy.

The Age Action submission points out that lifelong learning results in a range of positive outcomes including improvement to our quality of life and wellbeing, reduced risk of social isolation, and an overall increase in keeping mentally and socially active and in learning new skills as we age.

I would like to draw attention to the fact that lifelong learning also benefits our brain health, reduces our risk of developing dementia and increases our chances of living independently in the community in later life.

Some of us are able to maintain better brain function as we age, even if we develop the physical damage associated with neurodegenerative disease.

In fact, some people who show the pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease in their brain do not show any perceptible symptoms of the disease.

This resilience, also known as “cognitive reserve”, appears to be linked to a number of modifiable factors, many of which are also associated with lifelong learning, such as level of education reached, carrying out cognitively demanding tasks and being socially active.

Education is the most broadly and consistently successful cognitive enhancer, better even than drugs or sophisticated technology. Education can build up our cognitive reserve at any point during life.

Public policies that support lifelong learning and foster educational attainment have an important role to play in addressing the risk of dementia at population level. Sadly the share of adult learners, aged 40 and over, in Ireland is one of the lowest in the EU.

With 90,000 of us predicted to be living with dementia in Ireland by 2031, we need to mobilise public health approaches to attempt to reduce the prevalence of dementia through primary prevention.

A whole-of-government approach, as espoused in the Healthy Ireland Framework, that supports meaningful investment in lifelong learning has the capacity to reduce dementia risk and address health inequalities.

I urge both the Minister for Education and the Minister for Health to pay heed to Age Action’s recommendation for increased investment in lifelong learning. – Yours, etc,

SABINA BRENNAN, PhD

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.