This weekend I am speaking at a conference about the brain and mental health. My contribution will focus on the cognitive benefits of learning throughout life but especially in older age. Key to my argument will be a presentation of an extraordinary document produced by the Government Office for Science entitled ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century’. Published some four years ago, just as the perfect economic storm was breaking, it has largely been forgotten. One recommendation, however, has been enacted which has seen the abolition of the statutory retirement age enabling older people to continue in work if they so desire.
The significant points in the report were that we should all stay connected with our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. That we should remain active for as long as possible. That we should be curious about the world around us and that we should keep on learning as this helps stave off some forms of cognitive decline as well as depression and it boosts personal confidence. Finally, the report recommended that individuals should give back to the community, to friends and strangers alike. Great stuff, much of which chimes with the notion of The Big Society. Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, was interviewed by John Humphries on Radio 4’s Today programme. Humphries asked Sir John about what was the most important thing anyone can do in older age to improve the quality of their life as the years tick on. The answer came back quickly. Keep on learning.
At a time when life expectancy is increasing significantly but with the public purse snapped shut there is an irony that the costs of looking after people in old age could be reduced by creating a culture of learning if only resources were invested in the right places today.