Exercise Your Mind at Washington Community and Technical Colleges

Someone who exercises his or her brain is 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia than a cognitively inactive person.

Henry Ford said, "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young." His advice from decades ago is even more relevant today.

We live in the knowledge age, a time of breaking news, fascinating discoveries, and whirlwind changes in technology. Learning sharpens minds and boosts spirits. It keeps people engaged … and engaging.

Nancy Merz Nordstrom, author of Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years said: "Lifelong learning is like a health club for your brain." In Washington, these knowledge "health clubs" exist at local community and technical colleges.

Washington's two-year colleges have a strong track record of meeting the needs of age 50+ adults by offering flexible hours, short-term classes, and volunteer opportunities. Students study new subjects and explore interests they never had the chance to learn before.

South Seattle Community College, for example, offers a range of lifelong learning classes that include Facebook, retirement planning, genealogy, government history, yoga, and an ever-popular computer class for beginners.

At Highline Community College, 50 to 90 students gather each July for the week-long Senior College program. Sessions are offered in the morning and afternoon on a wide array of topics that include exercise, health and nutrition, the arts, science, current technology, and history.

Community and technical colleges in King County include Bellevue, Cascadia, Green River, Highline, North Seattle, South Seattle, Seattle Central, Seattle Vocational Technical Institute, and Shoreline, as well as the Lake Washington Institute of Technology and Renton Technical College.

Contemporary issues are also explored. As debris from the Japanese tsunami washed up on Washington shores, Highline students learned about the crisis and its effects. Many of the Senior College sessions are taught by Highline staff; others are taught by government leaders, business owners, authors, or guest speakers. An advisory committee of senior volunteers provides advice about relevant topics.

Community and technical colleges also sharpen skills for taking on volunteer opportunities. At Lake Washington Institute of Technology, a senior student grew hundreds of fuchsias for a college plant sale as part of a special projects course. "Propagating these plants is something I really enjoy. I think this is something I can do until I'm 90!" volunteer Toni McCormick said in a college blog.

As more people work later in life, many turn to community colleges to update their professional skills. Two-year colleges offer training relevant to today's jobs—after hours, online, and in the community. For those who feel the world has changed since the last time they were in a classroom, community colleges can help. Students learn new skills or brush up on the subjects they need to remain in high demand.

When the Great Recession caused the layoff of workers with 15, 20, 25 or even 30 years of experience, community and technical colleges trained them for new jobs in growing industries. Conversely, employees who want to strike out on their own after decades of work experience can learn the entrepreneurial skills to start the business or venture they've always envisioned.

It's said that "age is a state of mind." A study by Rush University in Chicago found truth in this adage. A five-year study of seniors averaging 80 years old found that a cognitively active person in old age—somebody who exercised his or her brain—was 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's disease than a cognitively inactive person.

Some community and technical colleges offer a Senior Citizen Space-Available Tuition Waiver. The waiver allows Washington residents 60 years and older to register for up to two regular credit-bearing college classes (either audit or credit) each quarter for a small fee. Official registration for seniors is the second week of the quarter if there is space available. This waiver covers traditional college classes that offer credits, not personal enrichment classes. Participation by colleges is optional, so be sure to check if your local college offers the senior waiver.

The greatest lesson is this: Learning is a vital part of living. Find your nearest community or technical college on Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges website.

—Laura McDowell, Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges

Portions of this article courtesy of the American Association of Community Colleges.