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© 2013 Leroy O. Stone. All rights reserved.

Why a Great Increase of Third-Age Learning is Needed Now

by Leroy O. Stone

There should be a great increase in the percentage of the older population enrolled in Third-Age education courses. Why? They need to improve their effectiveness in thinking systematically about comprehensive risk management and the linkages among the various risks they will face as they make later-life transitions. The courses need not be about risk management per se; but they should strengthen the cognitive functions associated with the conduct of sophisticated strategizing and decision-making. (Note: The term "Third Age", now widely used, refers to the stage of the life course where one has passed the stage of family-building as well as the main ages of the labour force, is main work force; but one is still able to do productive work. It was originated by Professor Peter Laslett in his book entitled "A Fresh Map of Life" (1989)). Several countries now have organizations called " ... University of the Third Age".)

"But their brains have aged too much or have gone so ‘rusty’ from a lack of use", you might retort. If you hold this view, wake up! You are dead wrong. That's what you would be told by Dr. Pamela Greenwood from George Mason University, a specialist in brain studies and a co-author of the recently published "Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind". She told Dr. Virginia Campbell of the Brain Science Podcast (episode 87 -- that there has been a revolution in brain science since the 1990s. A major new finding is that unless older brains are diseased, they produce new neurons continually, and among those who are exercising their cognitive functions aggressively these new neurons become integrated into networks that support new learning.

Professor Greenwood is echoing what appears to be a consensus among researchers at leading centers of work on brain science questions. Findings from various studies, along with associated theories, indicate that there is efficacy in attending proactively to cognitive fitness in later life, as a result of the now established plasticity of the brain in all age groups. The benefits of being proactive about brain fitness in later life are to be found across an array of day-to-day activities that involve cognitive functioning, including challenging activities such as aspects of decision-making. (However, if there is already some cognitive dysfunction, it is likely to reduce one's ability to benefit from brain exercises.)


There is a high potential for building and retaining cognitive resilience in later life

On the whole, however, the seemingly time-honoured dictum that you can't teach old dogs new tricks must now be rejected as being plain bunk. The supporting literature includes the following:

(1) Frederick W. Unverzagt and others, “ACTIVE Cognitive Training and Rates of Incident Dementia”, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society (2012), 18, 1–9. The authors sate that “Systematic cognitive training produces long-term improvement in cognitive function and less difficulty in performing activities of daily living.”

(2) K. Ball and others, “Effects of cognitive training interventions with older adults: A randomized controlled trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 288(18), 2271–2281. The authors conclude as follows: “Results support the effectiveness and durability of the cognitive training interventions in improving targeted cognitive abilities. “

(3) S.L. Willis and others, “Long-term effects of cognitive training on everyday functional outcomes in older adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296(23), 2805–2814. Their conclusions include the following: “Reasoning training resulted in less functional decline in self-reported IADL. Compared with the control group, cognitive training resulted in improved cognitive abilities specific to the abilities trained that continued 5 years after the initiation of the intervention.”

(4) George W. Rebok. Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century. State-of-Science Review: SR-E22

Cognitive Training: Influence on Neuropsychological and Brain Function in Later Life. … Commissioned as part of the UK Government’s Foresight Project. ( ) The author states that: “Recent success of cognitive training with normally functioning, older adults has engendered growing optimism about the modifiability of neuropsychological and brain function in later life and the potential to influence everyday behaviour, mental wellbeing, and quality of life. …

There is increasing evidence that training can affect multiple cognitive variables, including memory, reasoning, speed of processing, and spatial relations, that the effects can be long lasting, and that training gains may transfer to more distal outcomes related to everyday cognitive functioning and behaviour. “

(5) Christopher Hertzog and others, “Enrichment Effects on Adult Cognitive Development -- Can the Functional Capacity of Older Adults Be Preserved and Enhanced?” ( ) The authors state that: “… the potential for positive change, or plasticity, is maintained in adult cognition. It is an argument that is supported by newer research in neuroscience showing neural plasticity in various aspects of central nervous system functioning, neurochemistry, and architecture. … This view of human potential contrasts with static conceptions of cognition in old age, according to which decline in abilities is fixed and individuals cannot slow its course. Furthermore, any understanding of cognition as it occurs in everyday life must make a distinction between basic cognitive mechanisms and skills (such as working-memory capacity) and the functional use of cognition to achieve goals in specific situations. … and the available evidence suggests that older adults effectively employ specific knowledge and expertise and can gain new knowledge when it is required.” (italics added)

(6) M.B. Micthell and others, “Cognitively Stimulating Activities: Effects on Cognition across Four Studies with up to 21 Years of Longitudinal Data, “ Journal of Aging Research, 2012:461592. Epub 2012 Sep 13.

(7) Ellen Peters and others, “Adult Age Differences in Dual Information Processes: Implications for the Role of Affective and Deliberative Processes in Older Adults’ Decision Making”, Perspectives On Psychological Science, Volume 2—Number 1 .

In other words the idea that the intellectual requirements for engaging in complex risk management strategizing are beyond the capabilities of older persons because of the aging of their brains is simply wrong. The importance of this reality has been well stated by Herzog and others (item 5 above) as follows: “ … [We consider] the argument that individuals’ behaviors and environmental contexts can enhance their cognitive functioning and development in adulthood and old age. This idea is extremely important to individuals and to society. … [there are] major policy implications, including issues such as the future solvency of retirement pension plans, the Social Security System, and the Medicare system. What are perhaps less well recognized are the implications for society if prolonging the typical life span is accompanied by more years of disability and infirmity rather than productive life. “ Peters and others (item 6 above) offer a related point of great importance in this discussion: “The fastest growing age group in the world is the oldest old (age 80 and older). As the potential demands of this growing population place increasing strain on already-limited supports and resources, understanding the effects of aging on the maintenance of independent functioning and facilitating such functioning become critical. Judgment and decision-making processes are particularly relevant in this regard, given their importance in everyday life. (Italics added.) The relevance of these processes increases when one considers that, relative to younger adults, older adults have fewer opportunities to compensate for poor-quality judgments and decisions, because they have less time and physical resiliency to recover from the ‘‘normal’’ ups and downs of everyday decision outcomes.”


The true story of Alicia Smith, and how it illustrates the importance of capitalizing on the potential to build cognitive resilience throughout later life

"But what does all this have to do with seniors being educated to address their risk management challenges", you ask? Consider this true story of Alicia Smith.

Expressions of pleasant surprise and congratulations came freely from relatives and friends who learned that Alicia Smith had passed the age of 98. One would have thought that in this environment Alicia Smith would be looking forward with great anticipation to reaching 100.

Not so! She was struggling to develop coping strategies to address multiple personal pitfalls. Over the preceding year glaucoma and diabetes brought on blindness. She had gradually lost independent mobility. She contributed to this loss by progressively neglecting self-care. Two years before she died she calmly announced that she wanted to die. "How strange", you might say! But think of this fact.

The relatives and friends who were wishing her well did not find time to visit her regularly, to sit by her bed, hold her hands and exchange stories. Her social support network had broken down, and social isolation was "getting to her".

Oh, did I mention the financial dimension? Her savings were exhausted, and her teacher's pension was just enough to pay some personal-care bills.

In short, she had to find coping strategies across a wide variety of pitfalls and other challenges.

Question: should she have taken more action to prepare herself for this many-sided battle that would emerge as she aged? Of course! But when should she have begun doing so? About the time she entered her 90s? Surely not! At least 20 years ago, she should have begun risk management about some of the issues just cited, e.g., financial destitution and breakdown of her social support network.

Alicia was facing a network of linked challenges. It would be a big mistake to ignore the linkages. You have to juggle many variables; thus special thinking is needed. And here's a bottom line. Much of this thinking inevitably happens in later life. Thus the Third-Age learning cited above is essential.

And it should not be confused with or called "continuing education". The latter term suggests extended effort with courses normally taken in the more traditional educational organizations, whereas we should be thinking about a curriculum that includes courses that address major "emergent later-life issues". People at various prior levels of educational attainment (that is, not necessarily university graduates) should be going back to school to learn about these issues and the related risk management strategies and tactics.


But why is this planning for future life helpful when so much of the future is unpredictable?

The classic retort to the line of thinking outlined above is as follows. "You are talking about planning the future when in fact the future is essentially unpredictable. You may prepare yourself to address a particular series of unfortunate events whereas the series for which you are unprepared is just as likely to occur. This fact compounds the natural reluctance of individuals to do the kind of abstract thinking and anticipatory imagination that risk management entails. This reluctance shows itself clearly in the considerably simpler area of financial management. Thus, the risk management of which you speak is essentially futile."

To this retort there is a simplistic answer and a sophisticated answer that is more important.

The simplistic answer to this retort is something like the following. "Since we are unsure as to whether we will ever come down with food poisoning we will eat merrily and worry about the quality of food we ingest. Also, since we are unsure as to whether we will have a weight problem in later life we should feel free to consume as many calories as we wish each day. Furthermore, since we don't know whether we will succeed in school, or we don't know whether the particular academic accreditation we wish will in fact be obtained, we won't bother thinking about the kind of effort that one might make at school."

Who seriously takes this position? And notice that eating carefully and making a big effort to school are planning for the future only in the sense that eating carelessly and making a poor effort at school substantially raise the probability that certain desired future goals will be unattainable.

Another way to say this is that making the effort never guarantees success but not making it very likely guarantees failure. The plain fact is that most people know that making the effort does not guarantee success; but they make it anyway in the hope of stacking the odds in their favor, of being ready to seize opportunity when it comes, even recognizing it may never come.

The more important and sophisticated answer to the retort cited above is that risk management is about building resilience and robustness, so that even when the future mishaps to be encountered are actually unknown, when they take place one is better able to cope having engaged in proactive risk management. (See the section entitled “Robustness and Fragility” in Nicholas Taleb’s, book "The Black Swan" (pages 310-321, published by Random House, 2010)). We don't know which black swan is actually going to arrive in our lives; but by thinking systematically about the potentials we can do various kinds of resilience-building so that whichever one arrives we have a better chance of coping. This idea applies especially to the development of coping resources (or strength) that may be useful in dealing with a variety of future pitfalls if they are met -- we may think of this as a process of developing generalized coping strength, as risk management strategy.

A good example can be seen when considering educational pathways pursued by young people. Opting to get more education with a focus on subjects that have wide applicability is a form of building generalized coping strength relative to a search for employment in future years. There is here no specific plan as regards what kind of future employment will be sought ; but it is a plan to be ready to compete effectively in the job market. It is an example of building resilience to deal with future contingencies. Only certain debaters would take the view that such activities produce a waste of time because “you can’t plan for a future that is unpredictable”.

Of course it is a matter of personal judgment whether one wishes to engage in this kind of resilience building; but at the very least those persons who provide us with professional advice concerning various lifestyle and family protection issues are better equipped to help us when they have thought about the dimensions of adequate risk management so as to be able to bring them to our attention as their clients. We can then decide how much of this activity we would care to undertake.

There is an analogous situation in the field of health promotion and health care. Good health care providers will not hesitate to advise you about all the different things you should think about to do in order to achieve adequate health promotion and maintain good physical and mental fitness; but they leave it up to you to decide how much you will actually do. Thus, no one is advocating that individuals personally undertake all the complex thinking and study to become knowledgeable about proper health promotion and health care. Instead, one should hope that in persons’ support networks there are professionals who can bring to one’s attention the useful knowledge that comes out of that thinking and study. However, to adequately interpret and use the information they provide we need to have acquired some fundamental relevant education.

In the upshot, even when we are not able to predict exactly which misfortunes will strike us in the future, and thus one cannot be sure which ones to address, most people consider it prudent to take certain precautions relative to the potential future misfortunes that have reasonably high probabilities of being met. The resilience that is thereby built stands them in good stead across an array of such misfortunes.

The reality it seems is not that people believe such precautions and resilience building are useless; because they take some precautions and build some levels of resilience on a very wide scale. What seems likely is that in certain areas of life the perceived difficulties of engaging in resilience building are thought to be too daunting to be worth the trouble. Thus the fraction of people engaging in financial planning and financial risk management may be very small relative to the total who ought to be doing so, not because they believe that this risk management is useless but rather because it seems unduly difficult or inconvenient, or people's lives are filled up with so many other things that seem to have higher priority that it ends up not ever getting attention. Inconvenience, difficulty or lack of time to give this matter attention do not diminish its importance. The same applies to retirement related risk management, of which financial risk management is one component. And, to repeat my bottom line, if you ever get to the point of seeking professional advice the professional advisor should be good enough to put your specific issues into your broader life context (to bring related issues into scope) so as to address the question of what is the best available distribution of your limited resources.


Indirect evidence of increased concern with risk management in the "more mature" age groups

But there's some good news. Just recently, several media stories have discussed the falling labour force participation rate of the USA adult population. Various articles have suggested that this is an across-all-ages decline in labour force participation rates. Not so!


Since the great recession and into the summer of 2012, the labour force participation rate in the 65-and-over population has been rising in Canada and the USA. It is a plausible hypothesis that a substantial proportion of this population segment is proactively engaging in risk management relative to certain perceived threats to their standard of living. These people staying in the labour market past age 65 are learning “in the school of hard knocks”.

Universities of the Third Age -- where are they?

Where are the educational institutions engaged in marketing and providing Third-Age learning? And where they exist, how accessible are they? Are there enough of them? Are their curricula sufficiently focused on vigorous exercise for their students’ cognitive functions? In short, are there sufficient institutional forces devoted to providing effective assistance in this vitally important Third-Age struggle?

When we argue that Third-Age learning needs much higher priority than it is receiving, that is not to say that our society is lacking in organizations of various sorts that are attending to this matter. As the following list of links show, in many countries there are organizations attempting to promote and facilitate Third Age learning. [See, e.g.,, (The Third Age Network in Ontario), (Canadian network of older adult learning organizations), (International Association of Universities of the Third Age), (The European Association for the Education of Adults, a European NGO with 122 member organizations from 43 countries working in the fields of adult learning),, ( “U3A Online is the world-first virtual University of the Third Age delivering online learning via the Internet….”),, (“The Learning in Retirement Movement in North America”, by Nancy Nordstrom)].

It seems very likely, however, at a tiny fraction of those who would benefit from this activity are indeed so engaged. A much higher percentage should be doing it for their own good and for the good of our society as whole (why is explained above). How to bring about this increase in Third-Age learning activity is, of course, a $64,000 question and a topic for another discussion.

Closing comment -- "take your brains to the gym"

We should not walk away from this story with the idea that this is now a trivial public policy issue. As more and more baby boomers march into retirement self-support and arrangements for nongovernment-mediated exchanges of support could be of crucial importance to avoid the widespread suffering that will follow in their absence. The foundation for energizing the required levels of self-support and nongovernment mediated exchanges of support undoubtedly includes an expansion of Third-Age learning that is focused upon helping people to achieve and maintain the cognitive fitness needed to act effectively relative to the challenges of later life. We are bombarded with advertising and social chatter about taking our bodies to “the gym” (of some kind), and we need similar attention to “taking our brains to the gym”.