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A tonic for the obese and depressed

TWO new reports provide further evidence of the health benefits of learning for people of all ages.

The two papers produced in 2002 by the Centre for Research in the Wider Benefits of Adult Learning make a clear case for the impact of learning on mental health, and conditions such as obesity.

The first paper Learning Continuity and Change in Adult Life, says education has a major role to play in preventing ill health. "If one third of a GP's time is taken up with mental health issues, then services that prevent, mitigate or resolve these should be looked at seriously. The health-maintaining function of learning is hard to identify systematically but is fundamental."

In October, the centre produced a paper from Leon Feinstein on the effects of learning on depression and obesity, the former accounting for around 14 per cent of NHS costs. He found a clear link between academic achievement and the incidences of these two conditions.

For example, 29 per cent of women in the lowest band of academic attainment suffered depression compared with just 9 per cent of the highest band. A similar pattern emerges for obesitywhich was a problem for 21 per cent of the lowest band suffereing it compared with 8 per cent of the highest.

A survey of more than 300 people, aged 50 to 71, carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies in 2000, found that 74 per cent who described their health as excellent or very good were engaged in learning.

Eight out of 10 learners reported a positive impact of learning on happiness, self-confidence, self-esteem, or their "ability to cope".

The survey found that ill health was a barrier to learning. But studying had a bigger positive impact on the lives of those who were ill than it did on healthy students.

One older learner, 75-year-old Iris Fewkes, set about learning how to use computers and now runs her own computer classes. She said she needed the challenge. "It's made every difference. I feel far more alive than I ever did," she said.

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