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it’s been years since you hit the books, but there’s no need for your educational journey to end. Going back to school promotes mental, physical, professional and societal benefits

A lifetime of learning: it’s been years since you hit the books, but there’s no need for your educational journey to end. Going back to school promotes mental, physical, professional and societal benefits

Samantha Dunn

Ah, the irony: After six years spent furthering the wellness of others, Los Angeles organic-restaurant manager Curry Forshpan was a burnt-out stress case at 28.

She closed her business and started searching for a more practical line of work. “I interviewed for corporate manager and agent jobs–nothing that I really wanted to do–but I thought it would be a smart move financially,” Forshpan says. “Finally my father said, ‘You have to do what you love to do. Don’t think about the money. You’ll be successful at what you’re passionate about.'”

Forshpan, a devotee of natural remedies and Eastern spirituality, had toyed with the idea of going back to school to become an acupuncturist. But the hurdle of returning to a degree program–“student loans, living on no money”–made her balk. Then there was the prospect of starting over at an age when she felt she should be well on the road to success and financial security.

In the end, passion triumphed. Today, at age 34, Forshpan is not only an acupuncturist with a successful practice, she has launched a skin-care line called Earthology. And to prove that no experience is ever wasted, she states that the training she received managing her restaurant has helped her considerably in this latest entrepreneurial effort.

“There is no loss,” she says. “When you’re older and this is ’round two’ of school, you’re so worried about the time–‘Oh my God, six more years of my life.’ I almost didn’t do it. But you’re going to be older anyway, so you might as well pursue what you want. You’ll be happier, and you’ll have done something meaningful.”

Experts agree with Forshpan’s advice. Mental function has a substantial use-it-or-lose-it element, so continuing your education benefits your brain by staving off everything from simple boredom to Alzheimer’s disease.

Evidence of brain aging has been found in people in their 20s, says Gary Small, M.D., director of the University of California Los Angeles Center on Aging and author of The Memory Prescription. “Lifelong learning is clearly important to [maintaining cognitive alertness]; the studies point to a definite impact.

“The good news is that, for the average individual, what contributes to brain aging is two-thirds nongenetic,” he explains. “That means we have more control of our future brain health than we think.”

motivation and change

Adults tend to be extremely motivated learners, says Mary Nichols, Ph.D., dean of the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education, where about 4,000 adults work toward degrees or certificates and another 6,000 take noncredit courses annually. “The reward of teaching adults is that you don’t have to lead them to water and you don’t have to make them drink,” Nichols notes. “They want to maintain a vibrant life through education.”

An external life change, such as a new job, divorce or retirement, often motivates a return to the classroom, observes Nichols. For example, on retiring, Beverly Hills, Calif., residents Jill and Chuck Reilly decided to learn Spanish, which they find useful during traveling and for communicating with the rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population of Southern California.

The couple is enjoying the rewards of tackling a new skill. “We retired from working, we didn’t retire from life–there’s a big difference,” says Jill. “Since I started taking Spanish, I feel that my mind is sharper through all the studying and memorizing.” Indeed, a recent study at York University in Toronto, Canada, suggested that learning a foreign language is a defense against developing Alzheimer’s. “If that’s the bonus, hey, let’s study French, too!” Jill jokes.

For Alexa Singh, 44, of Westminster, Colo., losing 70 pounds was the impetus for her decision to pursue an MBA after being a homemaker for many years. “Success in weight loss spurred me with the courage to take on greater challenges,” she explains. “Dealing with setbacks and keeping on chugging toward the goal are common aspects in both weight loss and achieving a higher education late in life” She graduated in May 2004.

dimensions of diversity

Among the challenges facing Singh and other “round two” students is time, or the lack thereof. Adults are generally busier and have more responsibility than they did at age 18, which means that simply finding the hours to attend classes or study can be difficult. “There was a point where Jill and I felt that the commitment to study Spanish was getting in the way of a lot of other fun things we enjoyed, like spending time with family,” says Chuck Reilly. “You have to make choices, because there just isn’t enough time for all the wonderful things there are to do.”

There are also social pressures. Singh recalls feeling self-conscious walking into classrooms where most of the students were her son’s age and she was sometimes older than the instructor. So it’s helpful to keep in mind that an age difference can actually be beneficial to a class overall.

“Schools want diversity, and age is one dimension of diversity” says Dale W. Maeder, Ph.D., coordinator for the test-preparation program at UCLA Extension, where 60,000 adults take classes annually. “[Older students] enhance the discussion, bringing in whole new elements to the room that everybody needs.”

Keep in mind that everyone is there to learn something they don’t know, Maeder adds. “You must come in with a confidence built on the belief that someone in the class is going to do well, and it’s going to be you.”

brain and body power

Gary Small’s research suggests that a combination of mental activity, physical conditioning, stress-reduction practices like meditation, and a healthy diet keeps the brain in optimal shape for learning. In one study, he found that subjects who used this multifaceted approach showed a 5 percent increase in memory in just two weeks. There were some physical benefits, too: The average participant exhibited lower blood pressure and lost a pound of body weight per week.

“After completing the study, people reported feeling more positive, more empowered and in control of their lives” Small says. “They were often told they looked better, too.”

He advises people to challenge themselves with activities that are stimulating, but also fun. Instead of jumping into a huge commitment like pursuing a degree, start by taking one class on an interesting topic. “Think of the physical-fitness model, and the concept of cross-training,” he says. Something as simple as a dance class, which is both kinesthetic and mental, could spark your confidence to pursue more.

For Bill Kaufman, a relationship counselor in Santa Monica, Calif., indulging his lifelong interest in music and dance provided unexpected benefits. His own therapist encouraged him to take drumming lessons as a way to overcome fear and a tendency to be too self-critical That experience encouraged him to pursue swing dancing; he’d always watched it on American Bandstand, but had never braved the dance floor.

“I had a lot of fears about it being too tough, and that I would not be able to learn, but my first class was a gas right off the bat,” says Kaufman. Through this process, he has received his best life lesson: “It was out of respect to myself that I got in there to learn. My therapist told me, ‘If you can show up as a loving adult to yourself, if you can be patient and consistent, that will help.’ I have learned that’s really true.”

re-learning education

“There’s no reason adults can’t be very successful learners,” says UCLA Extension instructor Dale Maeder, Ph.D., who offers these points to consider:

* Time odds are good that you won’t learn in exactly the same way you learned when you were 16. Take time to ask yourself how you feel most comfortable. Do you need to tape your lectures? Should you highlight your notes for visual cues or rewrite them to help commit things to memory? Try things you didn’t in college!

* Develop a study system that includes networking with other students, so you don’t feel isolated. Chances are, you’re not the only one struggling with course content.

* Research suggests that studying in the same area promotes good work habits, so create a dedicated learning space in your home or office.

* Because it is sometimes hard to re-establish study habits, create a reward system for yourself. For example, treat yourself to dinner out oil Friday as a prize for reading notes on Thursday.

* Adults have larger vocabularies and better critical thinking skills than teenagers do, but they may have more difficulty paying attention for long periods. Build mental breaks into your schedule; you might want to limit studying to 20- or 30-minute chunks.

* Think of yourself as a customer as well as a student. You pay for what you learn, so get all you can by asking questions and demanding the best from your instructors.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Weider Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group