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Can Lifelong Learning Help As We Age?

University programs designed for older adults help prevent cognitive decline.

Can staying mentally active as we grow older help prevent cognitive and physical decline?

According to the World Health Organization, active aging is defined as “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.” People can stay active throughout their lifespans by participating in social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and civic affairs. That can include paid and volunteer work as well as regular physical exercise. From the WHO perspective, “health” includes physical, mental and social well-being and encourages older adults to stay as active as possible to extend healthy life expectancy.

But what about education? Although attending school used to be seen as age-based, i.e.,intended to prepare children and adolescents to become adults and begin a career, that has been largely replaced by the newer idea of lifelong learning. Instead of ending education at a specific age, people are encouraged to continue learning throughout their lifetimes, whether on their own through self-directed learning or in adult education and continuing education classrooms. To encourage that trend, many European countries launched University of the Third Age (U3A) courses for older adults. Beginning in 1973 in France, U3A programs have spread across much of the world and the sight of older adults attending classes along their younger classmates is becoming a familiar sight on many campuses. Courses for older adults can range from humanities, social sciences, and even to more rigorous science and technology subjects.

Although the life-long learning trend is likely to continue as baby boomers age, actual research showing the benefits of continuing education in older adults is still limited. Gerontological research has shown that enriched learning environments can help reduce cognitive decline due to aging as well as helping older adults deal with depression and poor self-image although controlled studies of U3A students remain scarce.

A recent study published in GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry examined the impact of U3A education on a sample of students who attended the University Program for Older Adults (PUMA) at the Autónoma University of Madrid between 2007 and 2011. The goals of the PUMA program are 1) to promote knowledge and competences (measured by tests and exams), (2) to promote personal development, and (3) to increase social participation. The program runs for a three-year period with a total of 450 teaching hours and an evaluation at the end of each course. The PUMA curriculum includes courses in science, psychology, history, language, music, language, and art.

The PUMA sample was made up of 82 adults ranging in age from 55 to 70 (54% women). As a control group, the researchers used a subsample of an ongoing longitudinal study of active aging covering the same age range as the research sample. None of the 76 volunteers in the control group enrolled in educational courses during the period studied. Due to attrition, only 56 of the original PUMA sample were available for the posttest evaluation. All of the subjects were measured at different periods for: memory and learning performance, health (actual and subjective), social relationships, activity and productivity, as well as positive and negative affect.

Although there researchers found no initial difference between groups for cognitive functioning (including memory and learning) and health status, the control group subjects showed greater likelihood of depression than the student group. Pre-post comparisons showed that participating in school helped older adults increase their overall level of activity and improve memory functioning over time (both trends became worse over the same three-year period for the control subjects who did not attend university). There were significant differences between the two groups for social and productive activities and emotional balance. The university students also did better on tests of information-seeking and general health awareness. These results stayed consistent even when the researchers controlled for education and age.

Although these results are still preliminary (and the researchers warn that the quasi-experimental design limits how well the results can be generalized), the study shows evidence that university programming oriented to older adults can be beneficial. The researchers also suggest that reduced mental stimulation may lead to a decrease in cognitive functioning as people grow older. An enriched environment, whether through a formal university program or self-directed learning, has an important role in active aging and helping older adults compensate for cognitive and emotional decline.

While it is likely too soon to determine whether enriched learning and active aging can actually delay dementia and other serious health problems that come with time, the older student movement is just beginning. The rising number of older university students already attending classes and the increasing acceptance of these students in university settings is already underway. That lifelong learning can help older adults remain active and healthy is just another benefit.

More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
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