The most interesting, intelligent and vibrant people in your life probably are those who have never lost their love of learning. Decades of research tell us that the sign of a healthy brain is one that is constantly changing, growing and re-wiring itself. The ability of the brain to change itself is termed brain plasticity or neuroplasticity.

Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leader in the field of neuroplasticity research, claims that we can constantly change the structure of the brain and increase its capacity to learn. His research shows that if the brain is not challenged with new learning, the brain's function can gradually erode over time, leading to decreased memory and cognitive function.

Educators are learning that brain fitness for students is just as important as physical fitness. Adults, especially baby boomers, are embracing lifelong learning as way to keep the mind and body healthy. Some are even looking at voluntourism (combining volunteer work with vacationing) or educational travel (combining lectures, explorations and leisure time) as a way of pursuing lifelong learning.

Traveling and formal education are excellent ways to learn, but they can be expensive for many in these budget-tightening times. But as anyone who’s enjoyed the services of their community library can attest, they are by no means the only way to learn.

Have you visited your local library lately? They are no longer merely dusty repositories of books. Most are busy hubs of community activity including discussion groups, lectures, special-interest clubs, film nights, and more. And they offer rentals of new releases and classics in the formats of audiobook, e-book, CD, DVD, MP3… and of course, there are computers with wi-fi Internet access.

And speaking of the Internet, if you have access through a home computer, you hold the key to free education for life. A Web portal called Open Culture (“the best free cultural and educational media on the Web”) offers instruction in foreign languages, classic films, daily “best of the Web” features and, amazingly, online courses from world-class educational institutions including Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley and more.

So you see, there is no excuse to let those brain cells lie fallow. Learn a new skill, broaden your social horizons, and feed your brain with new information today and you will enhance your health and longevity.  And it doesn’t have to cost a penny.

How does lifelong learning contribute to your quality of life?