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Back to school

Taking a class to explore a subject or learn a new skill may increase cognitive ability and slow mental aging.


Image: Monkey Business Images/Thinkstock

Active aging involves more than moving your body. You also need to move your brain. “When you exercise, you engage your muscles to help improve overall health,” says Dr. Ipsit Vahia, director of geriatric outpatient services for Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “The same concept applies to the brain. You need to exercise it with new challenges to keep it healthy.”

A fun way to do this is to sharpen your No. 2 pencils and go back to school. “New brain cell growth can happen even late into adulthood,” says Dr. Vahia. “The process of learning and acquiring new information and experiences, like through structured classes, can stimulate that process.”

Adult education

About 17% of adults over 35 are enrolled at a four-year college or university or a community college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And because many campuses now offer free or discounted tuition for seniors (with no earned credits), there are more opportunities than ever for older adults to explore a variety of subjects and interests.

“The goal is not to earn a degree, but to keep mental activity thriving,” says Dr. Vahia.

You do not need a traditional academic course to gain benefits, he adds. “It can be about learning new skills, like speaking a foreign language, learning how to paint, or playing a musical instrument. You can even study how to improve current skills, like fixing a car or becoming more computer savvy.”

Boosting brain power

Playing brain games, like puzzles and crosswords, and using brain-training videos can improve your working memory—the ability to remember and retrieve information, especially when you are distracted. Research has found that doing these puzzles or drills helps your brain get better at performing those activities; however, the practice does not expand other brain functions, like reasoning and problem solving.

“In comparison, classes offer a complexity factor that has long-term benefits,” says Dr. Vahia. They engage cognitive skills, such as visual comprehension, short- and long-term memory, attention to detail, and even calculation abilities.

Research has long shown that new knowledge pays off. A study in the June 2014 Annals of Neurology found that individuals who speak two or more languages, even those who learned a second language in adulthood, may experience slower cognitive decline as they age.

But class attendance is not enough. For optimal results, you need to get out of your comfort zone and challenge your mind.

A study in the January 2014 journal Psychological Science involved adults ages 60 to 90 who were assigned to learn a complex skill, like digital photography or quilting, both of which demand increased use of working and long-term memory. After a three-month period, this group showed wide-range improvement in overall memory compared with a group who did simpler mental activities like crossword puzzles.

On a personal level, classes also keep your social skills sharp as well as boost self-confidence. “It is easy to become more socially isolated as people grow older,” says Dr. Vahia. “A class makes you interact and communicate with other people on a regular basis through group participation and discussions.”

Ready to enroll

Before you sign up for your first class, here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Choose a subject you enjoy or are curious about. Civil War history? English literature? Astronomy? “Your choices are no longer dictated by the requirements to get a good grade, so you are free to pursue topics that spark your interest,” says Dr. Vahia. “What are you interested in now, or wish you had explored at an earlier time?”

  • Not interested in traditional subjects? Focus on a class with a self-improvement angle, like public speaking or creative writing.

  • Begin with a weekly class, so you can ease into the environment and not feel overwhelmed.

  • If you do not feel ready for a classroom setting, take an online class. “But make sure it offers some level of interaction with classmates through discussion boards,” says Dr. Vahia.

  • If your class does not meet your expectations, do not give up. Try a different type of class, format, or even instructor.

Class is now in session

  • Many states have seniors tuition waivers at state-funded institutions (www.aseniorcitizenguideforcollege.com).

  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes are located on 119 college and university campuses and offer noncredit courses for those ages 50 and older (www.osherfoundation.org).

  • Local senior, community, and recreation centers host many enrichment classes in topics such as sculpting, pottery, and dance.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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