lifelong learning

Use it or lose it – Idleness rusts the mind

Lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important in a society where people need to work for a longer period of their life and where frequent career changes are normal. This also impacts the number people interested in distance learning. According to Forum Distance Learning, the number of distance learning students is increasing on a continuous basis– even among those who are over 50 years old. What motivates them to study and how do people react to their decision? We asked our students.


lebenslanges LernenThe joy of learning in itself, professional reorientation, and better opportunities for career advancement: these three reasons for starting a study programme later in life were named most frequently in an IUBH survey of distance learning students. Independent of that, about half of the respondents expect to profit from better professional opportunities.

“People with low or inadequate qualifications are the losers on the job market. On the other hand,  those who consistently expands their areas of expertise are forward looking and prepared for all phases of their life”, says Ralf Reiter who started his bachelor degree programme in business law at IUBH Distance Learning at the age of 55. “As working lives get longer, it is increasingly important to be professionally flexible”, agrees 55 year old Hildegard Keck.

Cristina Petzolt proves that this actually does payoff: “Although I started my degree programme only a year ago, I immediately got a job”, says the 53 year old with joy.

Due to the steadily increasing age of retirement in Germany and the existing shortage of skilled workers, continuing education for older people is also profitable for companies: employees over 50 still have many working years ahead of them and are less likely to change employers.

In many areas, 50 year olds are fitter than 25 year olds

So, what argues against studying at an older age? Definitely not a deteriorating memory or ability to learn. Research confirms that personal learning performance depends on one’s vocabulary and working memory – and both can be trained. According to Swiss psychologist Philippe Rast, in some areas, such as mental arithmetic, older people even tend to be superior to those younger. This is what our students also experience. “Amazingly enough, I have discovered that my brain can process much more than when I was younger. The cliché that learning gets harder with age is definitely not the case for me”, says Laurenz Fank, 52.

The Seattle Longitudinal Study, which, for more than sixty years, examines the mental capabilities of 6,000 people every seven years, also shows that over 50 year olds are ahead of 25-35 year olds in terms of language skills, word memory, spatial orientation and drawing conclusion from complex situations.

lifelong learning

Alexandra Stanko

Alexandra Stanko

Alexandra Stanko, 51 years old, is studying economics at IUBH. She is similarly convinced: “My brain feels more alert than ever before. I am amazed by the capacities one has at 50. I would even say it’s easier than at a younger age because when you decide to study later in life, you have a clearer idea of why it is worth doing.”

Results from the Institute for Brain Research at the University of Bremen show that mental stagnation in the early to mid-fifties is not a given. Those who mentally stagnate at the age of 45 to 55 have low motivation to perform and set goals for themselves that are too low. The brain can do what is required of it, and only learns when it expects a reward. Accordingly, for the sake of mental fitness alone it can be useful to start a degree programme at over 50 years of age. Especially in our knowledge-based society, which is changing all the more rapidly in the era of digitisation.

lifelong learning

Hildegard Keck

Hildegard Keck

Flexibility is crucial

The study programme has to fit in with daily routine – also for older people, or perhaps especially for older people. Our respondents agree with this. “The flexibility of the distance learning programme is extremely important for me. With four children and a job, I really appreciate the flexibility. While jogging and getting the most out of periods of waiting, for example, I listen to the course content per podcast”, says Hildegard Keck. Nevertheless, about two thirds of the students still schedule fixed times to study, usually early in the morning or on weekends.

Reactions from others diverge

As many scholars agree, lifelong learning, in the sense of personal development and adaptation to a rapidly changing world, will continue to gain in importance. It helps if family and friends are supportive. Nine out of ten of our respondents indicated that reactions from others are in general positive. “From my extended circle I get feedback that ranges from admiration to irritation – depending on what they think about learning and doing something new “at that age”. But mostly people show respect”, reports Alexandra Stanko.

Unfortunately, some people lack an understanding of what motivates another person to pursue intellectual challenge. Laurenz Fanks has received little understanding: “Many are stuck in the belief that such a project only makes sense if it is useful for one’s career. This is too short-sighted”, says Fank. Seventy percent of our respondents agree with Fank. They state that one is never too old to learn. Learning trains flexibility of the brain and opens up a wealth of opportunities into old age. The challenge is to keep evolving. The old saying is true: Use it or lose it.


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