Adult Education - is it good for our health?

What research suggests

Unfortunately there has been little direct research into the effect of Adult Education on health and well-being. However, three different types of research point in the same broad direction:

People with more full time Education tend to enjoy better health

In 2014 The National Bureau of Economic Research in the USA noted, ‘There is a well-known, large, and persistent association between education and health. This has been observed in many countries and time periods, and for a wide variety of health measures.’ 

More years in education also appear to be associated with a reduced risk of dementia although research findings here are mixed. For example low educational attainment may be more of a risk for men than women. However, population studies show that the rate of age specific dementia risk is reducing across much of the developed world, including the UK. Rising levels of education have been proposed as one of the two main reasons for this. 

Adult Education may have protective health effects.

This is suggested by several studies. 

One study suggested that adult education may be associated with reduced coronary heart risk – at least for people who leave school without qualifications and then gain qualifications later in life. That’s according to the International Journal of Epidemiology. The researchers did note though that other factors may be at work that it wasn’t possible to capture in the research.

Adult community learning and community arts may also have the potential for supporting well-being and promoting mental health recovery. That’s according to research by the University of Wolverhampton. 

Some of the activities which take place in Adult Education appear to have health benefits in their own right

Languages – A small scale 2012 study revealed that the brain remains ‘plastic’ long past our early developmental years and white matter structure changes as adults learn a second language. When we learn a language later in life, it stimulates our brain function and growth. One practical health benefit is that being bilingual (being fluent in two languages) may help to delay dementia. In one study, overall, bilingual patients developed dementia 4.5 years later than people who could only speak one language. 

The Arts – How the Arts affect your Health was the focus of the US government’s NIH News in Health in June 2008. This reported, ‘Scientists are finding that the arts can benefit both your mental and physical health. Many scientists agree that the arts can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve well-being and enhance the way we fight infection.’

Music, Visual Arts, Movement based creative expression and Expressive writing all appear to have potential health benefits, according to a 2010 review-although the authors recognise the evidence they reviewed had a number of limitations. The review suggested art and music helped patients recover more quickly and leave hospital earlier, while expressive writing helped control pain and feeling depressed. As a 2012 review identified, there is growing international acceptance of the notion that participation in the creative arts can be beneficial for well-being and health. 

Community-based creative arts adult education and art therapy initiatives are of significant value to a ‘mutual’ recovery and wellbeing agenda involving practitioners and adult learners/participants. That was the verdict of Research Council funded research published in 2016. Both group singing and craft classes appeared to have positive benefits for physical and mental health and satisfaction with life, according to researchers at Oxford University in 2016.

Keeping mentally active may delay the onset of memory decline in the pre-clinical stages of dementia. That’s according to a 2009 study which suggests that cognitive activity (keeping mentally active) helps build a protective cognitive reserve.  A 2014 study came to similar conclusions – seeing enriching mental activity throughout life as a potentially successful preventative intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic

Exercise classes - The health and economic benefits of exercise are well known. For example, many billions of pounds are spent treating diseases such as type 2 diabetes, which could be prevented if we did just 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week. That’s according to the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in 2015.

Adult Education is well placed to contribute here, as Adult Education programmes have typically contained a range of forms of exercise, from badminton and fitness classes to Tai Chi and a range of dance classes.

Does it matter where we learn – at home or in a class?

One advantage of attending a class is the opportunity for social interaction and to make new friends. This could make a difference. A study published in 2013 concluded that greater engagement in social activities may be potentially beneficial for preventing or delaying further cognitive decline among older adults with mild cognitive impairment. This is confirmed by the which reports that research suggests a positive correlation between social interaction and health.

Is it adult education or the people who attend adult education classes?

It may be that people who attend adult education classes are already likely to be pursuing healthy lifestyles. In that case attending adult education classes may be a symptom of healthy behaviour rather than a specific cause of good health. We know for instance that graduates are less likely to smoke than non-graduates - and that Adult Education often attracts graduates back into education.

However, we referred earlier to the health benefits found when people who leave school without qualifications then gain qualifications later in life; to the ability of the brain to continue developing well into adult life; and to the reported benefits for health and well-being of a number of specific programmes typically found in Adult Education. This suggests that education later in life itself has some protective health effect. 

So what could you study – and when?

From Beginners Spanish to a BA in Biology, Cookery to Gardening, the Arts to IT there’s a huge range of options to stretch your mind.

You can usually study in the day or evening and sometimes at the weekends and holidays too.

Are courses expensive? 

Most Adult Education courses in the UK are partly subsidised but expect students to pay a significant contribution through the course fee.

However, some courses are free. These are usually ones specifically for people who left school early, without qualifications, or to help people who are unemployed to get qualifications to improve their chances of finding work.

Conclusions

More research is clearly needed. However, a number of different types of research point in the same broad direction:

  • People with more full-time education tend to enjoy better health.
  • Research into Adult Education suggests it may reduce the risk of heart disease and can also promote well-being and mental health.
  • Some of the activities typically found in Adult Education programmes appear to have their own health benefits – including the arts, crafts, learning a new language and exercise classes.
  • The social interaction of attending Adult Education classes appears likely to help protect health too. 

So whatever your reason for attending Adult Education classes there seem likely to be health benefits 

Reviewed and updated August 2017. Next review date July 2020.

 

We would welcome your feedback on this article – at info@agewatch.org.uk  For references please also contact info@agewatch.org.uk

Adult Education courses in the UK

Online Adult Education courses

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Adult Education