We know education is important, and new research is showing that, even decades later, people with more education have better brain function into adulthood.

The European study by researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which was published in the February 2014 edition of Demography, was an analysis of older adults from six European countries who grew up during the change to compulsory education in the 1950s and 1960s. The study’s authors found that the more years of schooling people had, the better scores they had on mental fitness and memory. These were adults around age 60 who had been in school when the European countries changed their standards for education, requiring people to attend longer than in the past.

“Examining the variation in compulsory schooling was key,” said Rudolf Winter Ebmer, one of the study’s researchers from Linz University. “It allowed us to find out that education was the cause of better cognitive function, and not a simple correlation.”

But there’s also much research that lifelong learning is important for brain health. Learning can take many forms, including informal learning through taking knitting lessons from a friend to listening to podcasts to learn a new language, or taking a formal course. If you’re considering returning to or taking your first class in college, you should know that many institutions offer free or reduced classes for seniors!

Tips for taking formal classes

If you’re considering taking classes at a local community or traditional college, here are some tips to make sure you’re prepared and ready to learn:

  1. Recruit your family members and friends. If you’ve decided to or are considering returning to school, include your family members, who will surely be excited for you! Recruit their help, whether it’s quizzing you on test materials or editing your final paper.
  2. Draw on your experience. If you’re nervous about returning to school, keep in mind that you have years of experience that many people younger than you do not have. For starters, you probably know your learning style and life experience has taught you how to be organized and manage your time well.
  3. Brush up on technology. Today, many – though not all – courses have technological components, whether that involves doing online research or accessing an online dashboard to find and submit your assignments. Thankfully, many colleges and community centers offer technology courses for older adults. Check in with your local community college or senior center to see if they offer any. If you’re not comfortable with some types of technology, let your instructor know and he or she can find resources to help you.
  4. Have your hearing checked. If you think you have hearing loss, it’s a good idea to get your hearing checked before courses begin so you can seek out hearing loss solutions if necessary. The majority of major hearing aid manufacturers offer assistive listening devices specifically for the classroom, that usually include a discreet microphone that is wearable or placed near the instructor to transmit sound wirelessly to your hearing aids or a receiver.
  5. Take it slowly. If you haven’t taken an academic class in many years, it’s best to move slowly so you don’t become overwhelmed. Take just one class at a time to begin, rather than loading on three or more courses. Then you can gage what will work best for you.
  6. Meet other people. There are surely other adults returning to school or taking a few courses. If you haven’t met any, ask the school to connect you. It’s good to make connections with others with whom you can identify.
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