Feel-good factors of study

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Learning can help feel better, according to the adults who stick with their studies. Andrew Mourant reports

Mens sana in corpore sano: a healthy mind in a healthy body. Generations have grown up with that worthy Latin maxim. But when you reach adulthood, is learning necessarily good for body and soul?

Researchers at Niace, the national organisation for adult learning, have been finding out. And while they have discovered many benefits in terms of general well-being, the picture is not all rosy. The downside can be stress, mental health problems and broken relationships.

The mixed evidence is reported in The impact of learning on health, by Fiona Aldridge and Peter Lavender. Responses to calls for evidence flowed in from 473 adults and 47 groups, aged from 20 to more than 90.

Most, almost 70 per cent, were women. Just under half, 40 per cent, were in work, 34 per cent unemployed and 23 per cent retired.

Internationally, there are strong pockets of evidence from countries as different as Japan and Sweden to show that learning in old age cuts health and welfare costs.

The Niace report supports much of the research which had been published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Some benefits were predictable. There were many reports of increased confidence and the pleasures of acquiring new skills. Others - 18 per cent - found that learning resulted in gaining more responsibility at work or enabling them to strike out in new directions.

One woman set up a hedgehog rescue centre and has since toured schools lecturing on habitat loss and the environment.

But a major downside was "Educating Rita" syndrome: dissatisfaction with a previously tolerable status quo. When one woman in her 40s put her homework before her husband, "he ended our relationship". There were problems juggling study time with family, some suffered tiredness, and others struggled financially through funding their courses.

They were, however, the minority. Instead, 87 per cent claimed their physical health had benefited. Some learners felt better able to manage illness.

Others, buoyed up by stimulating classes, felt fitter and more energetic.

Even more - 89 per cent - reported improvements to their emotional and mental health. Some were able to reduce, or even give up, taking their anti-depressants.

It sounds like something doctors should know about and act upon.

However, health professionals strongly influenced just 8 per cent of adults at the start of their learning experience.

But one area where the matter is taken seriously is Nottingham, where Prescriptions for Learning, a project operating through surgeries across the city, has been running for three years.

Patients, depending on their condition, are encouraged to meet surgery-based learning advisers and consider taking up a course. The pros and cons are talked through beforehand and the adviser, if requested, will support a prospective learner through the first nervous stages of turning up at class, Prescriptions for Learning has attracted money from Niace, the health action zone, the Regional Development Agency and the Learning and Skills Council.

"The problem is that there is no sustainable funding," said Kathryn James, Niace's development officer for learning and health.

"But it has generated a groundswell of interest in making the link between learning and health. We now have a database of 80 projects based around the country."

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