Can Continuing Education Prevent Cognitive Decline?

Can Continuing Education Prevent Cognitive Decline?

When you think about college classes, you might think about the typical college-aged kid in his late teens or early twenties, sitting in a lecture hall or lab. You might think of thick books and term papers. While this traditional view of college may be a reality for many students today, as with every aspect of modern life, times are changing!

Only a few decades ago, sitting in a classroom was a requirement if you wanted to go to college. Commuting to campus on a set schedule was necessary. Depending upon where you wanted to go to school, you might have had to move across the state, the country, or even the globe to attain the higher education you desired. Carrying a pack full of heavy books around campus was the norm. Lecture halls were filled to the brim.

And there was certainly no opportunity to set your own pace in years past. Degree programs took place on a typical semester schedule and that was that – you either fit into the mold or you didn’t go to college.

But learning looks very different now.  

Today, online learning has become an enormous part of the college experience. And that’s great for seniors who want to go back to school but can’t imagine sitting in a classroom to learn. Classes can be taken individually or can be part of a certificate or degree program. Most importantly, many online courses can be taken whenever it suits your schedule. There is now a level of flexibility and accessibility in higher learning that simply didn’t exist before.

The effort of learning something new goes well beyond the thrill of knowledge. New studies have shown again that education can have a marked effect on preventing cognitive decline in seniors.

How Education Helps Prevent Cognitive Problems

A study analysis conducted by Ohio State University on more than 7,000 seniors in the United States found that education played a key role in staying mentally sharp as they entered their 50s and beyond. The study looked at several factors that often go hand-in-hand, including higher education, occupation, and income.

The researchers found that those who had finished college had the biggest difference in memory, judgment, and focus when compared to those who hadn’t received a degree. In fact, those who had engaged in higher education were found to have 40% better cognitive ability over the age of 54 than those who hadn’t.1

The original data for the analysis came from the long-running health and retirement study from the University of Michigan, which has been tracking over 20,000 participants for over more than 20 years. The researchers took into account other factors as well, such as physical health, smoking history, body mass index, activity levels, marital history, religion, and depression.

But why does higher education, in particular, seem to help prevent cognitive decline? The researchers believe part of the reason is that those who earn a degree are habituated to think clearly, make judgment calls, and be able to focus their mental energies on the task at hand. This echoes the research done by many others that shows any sort of brain stimulation, from painting on a canvas to learning a new language, can protect cognitive ability as we age.

The study hits on an important point for seniors to remember: it’s never too late to start stimulating your brain. Even if you earned a college degree (or several), keeping your mind sharp in your later years means using it as often as possible. One of the best ways to do that is to dive deep into a subject, such as you might do when you engage in higher education.

You don’t have to fit the traditional mold of a college student to take college level classes. You don’t have to go sit in a classroom to get the information you crave. In fact, as a senior citizen, you might not even have to pay a dime to take courses. Let’s look at the exciting options for college-level learning that are available to seniors.

Online Coursework is the New Learning

One of the biggest things to happen to higher education in recent years is the Massive Open Online Course. Known as a MOOC, these learning opportunities are classes offered by places such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Those are just a few of the bigger names offering MOOCs. 

MOOCs are taught by the same professors who teach the classes in-person on campus. MOOCs have open enrollment, meaning that anyone can take these classes. They are also self-paced, so you can choose to start a class tomorrow. Whether it takes you a month to complete it or you need a whole year, so be it; unlike traditional college coursework, there is no set time frame. 

And would you believe the majority of MOOCs are free?

What’s the catch? In the vast majority of cases, you won’t get college credit for taking a MOOC, though there are some exceptions. You can pay a small fee if you want to receive a certificate of completion that proves you finished the course. The point of an MOOC is to learn something new, not to earn a degree—which is perfect for seniors and elderly adults who wish to take courses to stimulate their brains and prevent cognitive decline!

The self-paced learning format makes life much easier for seniors. You watch recorded lectures and webinars at a time that is convenient for you. You might take auto-graded quizzes and even have the opportunity to chat with other students on message boards dedicated to your course.

Here are a few of the options for MOOCs that might be of interest to seniors:

·        Foundations for Assisting in Home Care. This course is offered through The State University of New York. Most people engage in 5-10 hours of study each week. It’s designed to teach you the basics about home health care.

·        CARE: Nutrition in Aging. Offered by the Imperial College of London, this course looks at what it means to be nourished as we age, how to spot signs of malnutrition, and what a healthy diet really looks like. Most people spend 2-4 hours a week on the course.

·        Life with Diabetes. This course from Curtin University allows you to learn about the different types of diabetes, what diabetes does to the body, and proper ways to treat it. You can take the course for 3-4 hours per week for five weeks.

If you’re curious about what’s out there, this page gets you started on finding MOOCs. Simply search for subjects or topics you’re interested in.

Want to Get College Credit for Free?

Maybe you never went to college at all but you’ve always wanted to earn a degree. Perhaps you did go to college and built a good career out of what you learned, but you’ve always been very interested in another field. Either way, once you reach a certain age, it’s possible to go back to school for free. Many colleges and universities offer tuition-free education to those over the age of 55. And in some cases, a state will offer free or reduced tuition at a community college to any state resident over a certain age.

Here’s how it works.

You must apply to the college to become a student. Once you are admitted, you can begin enrolling in courses. You can enroll in courses that are offered online or take the on-campus option. To get your tuition for free, you often must enroll in courses on a “space available” basis – that means those who are taking courses to earn a degree will get first dibs, and if there is space still available for that class, the spot is yours.

You might have some fees. For instance, you might need to pay an online course fee or purchase books and other materials to help you finish the course. But the big cost – tuition – is either reduced or completely free. Here are a few of the options:

·        In Alabama, you can attend a state community college for free after the age of 60.

·        The 10 community college campuses in Maricopa County, Arizona offer 50% tuition for residents over the age of 65. All the courses provide college credit!

·        All for-credit courses in Arkansas state-supported colleges are free to residents 60 and older.

·        In Delaware, state law says that classes from publicly-funded colleges must be free for state residents aged 60 and older.

·        It’s a law in Georgia that residents aged 62 and older can take courses for free at one of the 31 publicly-funded institutions in the state.

Keep in mind that these courses can quite often be taken online, so if you have mobility issues or other problems that might make it tough to get to class, you don’t have to worry! With a good laptop and internet connection, you can engage in online learning to earn those credits.

Though online learning offers many benefits for seniors, you might still choose to attend class in person. There are benefits to this too, such as getting more exercise, socialization with other students, and the opportunity to ask questions about things you might not understand. Attending in person is also a great idea for some of the hands-on courses you can use to care for yourself or others, such as those offered through a nursing program.

If you do choose to attend college in person, make sure that you have the peace of mind a personal emergency response system can offer. Knowing that you can simply press the button and get help on the way the moment an accident or emergency occurs can make you feel much more confident as you walk across campus. Medical alert systems are also personal safety devices.

Make Sure You’re Choosing Accredited Schools

Whether you’re learning for college credit or not, it’s important to look for one thing: accreditation. What does that mean? If a school is accredited, that means that a legitimate organization, recognized by the U.S. government, has ensured that the school meets a high quality standard. In other words, you’re not going to get incorrect information from the course offered by that school.

Make sure your chosen school has accreditation by looking it up at the Department of Education.

Stay Safe No Matter Where You Learn

Whether you are on a college campus or taking courses at home from the comfort of your couch, feeling safe and secure is a vital part of the aging experience. The peace of mind that comes from knowing you have 24/7 access to help at the press of a button alarm can help you focus and fully engage in your classes.

If you are on a campus, the on-the-go version of a senior alert system with GPS is the best bet, as you can reach out for help no matter where you are. If you are at home, either the home-based version or the on-the-go panic button will be suitable. Make sure to wear a medical alert system at all times as you pursue the courses that will keep your brain sharp throughout your golden years!