PEOPLE who learn longer live longer according to a study of links between health and education among adults.
The study for NIACE, the national organisation for adult learning, reinforces the findings of a decade of research in China, Japan and Sweden, that lifelong learning increases independence and mobility among the elderly.
In doing so, it cuts public spending on health and welfare at a time when governments are facing huge bills for dependency among "greying" populations.
The NIACE survey - published to launch Adult Learners Week - found that 89 per cent of adult learners reported improvements in their emotional and mental health. A third of respondents said they were better able to manage pain and illness as a result of learning. Just under a quarter of adult learners reported improved self-esteem and confidence. One in five reported improvements in jobs and work.
"A course of study may be better than a course of antibiotics," say the researchers. Their findings are based on questionnaires sent to 2,000 individuals and 750 adult learning groups throughout the UK over the past two years.
Flo Leeming, aged 63, from Lancashire, overcame severe depression after her husband died, by studying GCSE maths and A-level English. "I have a much more positive attitude to life - more relaxed, happier - and I don't dwell on my arthritis," she said.
Ron Smith of Wetherby, who took up painting while recuperating from an operation and believes he coped better as a result, now plans to study IT, maths and English.
"Since I starting learning I sleep better, I don't take tablets, I feel a lot less depressed and I'm generally happier," he said.
Researchers suggest that the benefits to health appear to stem from the concentration required for study and the satisfaction of achieving difficult goals.
Their study reinforces the Government's view in the 1999 NHS White Paper, Saving Lives: "Edcation is vital for health. People with low levels of educational achievement are more likely to have poor health as adults."
But the UK is behind many other countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Recent studies on lifelong learning for the OECD show that the cost of dependency was cut sharply in Scandinavia, where education programmes were introduced in old people's homes.
Courses of study should also be considered as an alternative to medicine among the mentally and physically sick, said Peter Lavender, associate director of NIACE. The organisation will launch a major survey later this year of GPs' perceptions of links between learning and health.
"The health benefits of learning are slowly being recognised. Promoting learning through health settings could be an important mechanism for reaching more people, since we know there is a link between poor initial education and poor health."
Adult Learners Week this year will focus on an increased range of activities in colleges, said Alan Tuckett director of NIACE. "Four-fifths of FE students are adult learners," he said.
"The biggest single grouping is 26 to 45-year-olds. That's an invisible army of adults who have had to apologise for their existence. That's why we're giving them a party."
The focal point is the national awards ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London on Monday, when Education Secretary David Blunkett will present scores of regional and national awards for individuals and groups seen as being among the most inspirational, model senior learners and the best carers.
Thousands of regional events include a "Spring in Learning" festival in Nottingham, the chance to master circus skills in Stockton town centre, and events and roadshows at branches of Sainsbury's up and down the country.
Companies will be taking part, organising activities like job-swaps and training taster sessions as part of the Learning at Work Day, on Thursday.