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Lifelong learning helps combat memory loss

Thursday, November 20, 2008 | 4:28 p.m. CST; updated 11:44 a.m. CST, Friday, November 21, 2008
James Miller, MU professor of theater, discusses costume designs from different musicals during a session of “A Potpourri of the Arts” class at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

COLUMBIA — With 15 minutes to spare before her 9:30 a.m. class, Ruth Miluski takes a seat in the back row.

It’s a chilly morning, and Miluski’s khaki bucket hat is keeping her warm and also concealing her white hair.

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Not that she’s trying to hide her age.

Vibrant color has faded from the hair of most people here. Many wear eyeglasses; some carry walking canes.

Miluski, 76, and the others are students at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at MU, which offers a range of non-credit classes for those older than 50, with topics including business, politics, cinema and Chinese cuisine.

Research shows that older citizens like Miluski can improve their mental health and reduce their chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease by participating in such educational programs.

A 2007 study by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that those who remained cognitively active as they aged were less likely to suffer mild or severe memory loss. Other factors that can lessen the onset of Alzheimer’s are physical and social activity, which adult educational programs provide.

“If you don’t use an organ, you tend to lose activity,” said Robert Blake Jr., professor emeritus of family and community medicine at MU.

“It’s that way for muscles and may be the same for the brain. It’s not a guarantee that you will avoid dementia, but there is evidence that those who continue to learn and tackle new things are a little less likely to develop dementia.”

Last year, more than 600 individuals enrolled at Osher, where Miluski takes classes twice a week.

She’s in good company. About 27 percent of Osher students take multiple courses in a year, forcing the staff to seek out new course subjects and instructors each session.

Whether it’s in response to research or to the aging U.S. population, stimulating programs that cater to the retired community are increasingly in demand.

According to the latest research from the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 percent of the national population aged 55 to 64 were enrolled in some type of adult education program in 2004-05; among the senior citizen population, 23 percent took classes.

 “We’re living longer and healthier,” said Lucille Salerno, director of the Osher institute at MU. “When we approach retirement or get close, we still have a lot of energy. If you were interested in learning during the first part of your life, it’s still satisfying.”

Miluski said she’s heard that education keeps the brain young, but she and her classmates aren't necessarily pursuing youth or social and health benefits. They take classes to fulfill their educational appetites.

Miluski retired in 1994 as the coordinator for administrative affairs in the MU vice president for academic affairs office. She wanted to learn more about subjects she had no chance to study, those totally unrelated to her career such as art and science.

“It’s not an attempt to keep busy,” Miluski said. “It’s an opportunity to do things differently.”

She initially took classes in geography, current affairs and other more academic topics. This session she enrolled in “Seriously Funny Modern Comedic Geniuses” and “A Potpourri of the Arts.”

Each Wednesday, she’s heard clips and analyses of different comedians from Bob Hope to Bill Cosby to George Carlin. Each Friday, she’s listened to a different artist discuss sculpting, the art of Rembrandt or organ music.

“It’s a release from the heavy topics of the day,” Miluski said. “I’m not ignoring politics, but I wanted to take some time for laughing.”

Miluski said she enjoyed her career but welcomed retirement. It gave her more time to appreciate the arts, listen to the birds chirping and enjoy a second cup of coffee with her husband, Edward, who died in March 2007.

“If my husband were here, he’d come too,” Miluski said quietly. “Some of the delights of retiring early were my memories with him. I still got great pleasure watching him walk through the door.”

Miluski comes to class alone but knows many of her classmates. Some are part of the MU Retirees Association; others are just acquaintances.

Salerno said the opportunity to socialize isn’t the salient reason Miluski and other students seek adult education programs, but they tend to forge friendships once they arrive.

“Although many come because they’re interested in the class topic, they also discover they’re with people who lived during the same time they did and they have so many commonalities with them,” she said.

But even homebound adults can seek intellectual stimulation. Blake suggests watching educational programs on television, reading books, listening to audio books and participating in distance education programs.

The Teaching Company, for example, offers courses in DVD, CD, cassette tape and book formats. Blake has listened to their lectures on the history of Western philosophy, John Locke and Montesquieu.

“There is an emerging market to provide these kinds of services,” Blake said. “I would not be at all surprised that as the baby boomer generation begins to retire, they’d be interested in doing a lot of this.”

Although he retired eight years ago, Blake, who is 63, still teaches part time and enrolls in MU courses. As a short story writer, he’s taken nearly all the literature classes offered at MU, aside from poetry.

“When I was in school or during the decades when I was a physician, I didn’t have time to study areas outside of medicine,” he said. “Now, I’m running out of courses to take in history or literature. I'm thinking of expanding into philosophy, music and political science.”

Although he is aware of them, the health benefits are not the conscious reasons he enrolls in courses. Blake still attends lectures and, although he isn't currently doing so, has written papers and studied for exams to broaden his knowledge.

Miluski, however, is relieved that she isn’t tested and or required to write book reports, which she always hated.

“The difference is I don’t have to know how to use a thing,” she said as class ended. “It’s not a need to know, just an appreciation.”

Miluski thinks back to the lecture she just heard by James Miller, MU professor of theater. She wants to ask him what he meant when he said he disliked Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. She wants to learn more about his watercolor paintings and costume designs. She wants to know more about the lives of those around her.

“I’m interested in everything,” she said with a laugh. “It’s so pleasant to go away and think for days afterward about these lectures. Even a year later, I will still remember one aspect of it.”  


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