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Seniors headed back to school

October 20, 2011
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Times Leader Staff Writer , Times Leader

"You're never too old to learn," the saying goes, and health experts are finding that the benefits of taking classes or workshops do not lie just in the pursuit of knowledge, but in better health, too.

Alzheimer's disease has become more prevalent, and studies are showing that keeping the mind and body active into the golden years can delay or even help prevent Alzheimer's onset. "Exercising" the mind strengthens brain cells and cognitive ability, important as the body ages. Simple activities like word games or crossword puzzles give those cells something to do and help the mind remember words, definitions and associations.

Taking a class or workshop is even more beneficial for overall health. Studies show that taking classes challenges the brain, making the most of those brain cells. Learning something new also develops memory capacity which declines with age. Language or creative writing classes are ideal because a new language presents the brain with unfamiliar thought, word and speech patterns, and creative writing may draw upon memories or push the brain into presenting ideas in structured sequences as in various types of poetry. Even keeping a daily journal is helpful for memory retention, as well as creating a legacy for children and grandchildren.

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Nellie Frohnapfel, 62, from Martins Ferry is a student at Belmont Technical College. She was inducted into Beta Theta Mu, BTC’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa on Oct. 17. She is working on certificates in Medical Coding and Medical Transcription.

Area seniors have some special opportunities if considering going back to school. Ohio University Eastern just west of St. Clairsville offers the "Sixty Plus" tuition program through the State of Ohio. Seniors can apply for tuition expenses for undergraduate courses based on space availability. There will be no charge for auditing a course (no credit.) If the student would like course credit toward a degree, he or she must be a full-time student and meet income eligibility requirements.

West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling periodically offers classes geared toward the senior student including computer technology, financial planning and even dance classes. According to Mike Koon, vice president of Workforce Development for WVNCC, the offerings are based on demand and are offered when they receive requests for the classes. He adds that students over 65 years old can receive a 50 percent discount on tuition rates for any class, based on space available.

"Seniors add diversity to the classes. I think it's a good experience for both groups [younger and older students,]" says Jody Peeler, associate dean of Financial Aid at Belmont Technical College on Route 331 outside of St. Clairsville. BTC offers senior citizen scholarships for tuition whether for auditing or degree programs. Many of these students are working toward degrees in child development because they are also part of the Foster Grandparents Program through the Corporation of Ohio Appalachian Development (COAD.) The "grandparents" work with daycares and grade schools as tutors and mentors for small groups of children.

Taking a dance, yoga or zumba class may be almost as beneficial as an academic class. Once again, Alzheimer's disease is expedited by the deterioration of mind and body, especially for those with diabetes. Researchers are discovering that exercising both keeps seniors stronger longer.

Physical classes like dance, yoga and zumba not only get the body moving, but teach the mind new steps or move sequences and improve memory ability. Yoga or Tai Chi will also improve balance and decrease the risk of falling.

Adding strength training to build muscles is also linked to cognitive ability and memory. One statistic notes that a combination of regular aerobic exercise and two to three strength training sessions per week could reduce the risk of Alzheimer's in a 65 year-old by 50 percent.

The "Silver Sneakers" program by Healthways is available at the Ohio University Eastern campus fitness center. This is a free program available through Medicare, Medicare Supplemental and various healthcare providers. In Ohio those include, but may not be limited to AARP Medicare Complete by United Healthcare, AARP Medicare Supplemental Insurance, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Humana and MediGold. At OUE, members have access to a walking/jogging/running track, strength training equipment, classes and more at their state of the art center. Register through the healthcare provider.

Whether taking classes to improve the mind or become more fit, interaction with like-minded new friends is an important boost to overall health. Many seniors become isolated as they age, and this can affect the mind, body and emotions. Social interaction stimulates the mind and provides support and friendship.

For more information on what these colleges have to offer, contact them at the following: Ohio University Eastern, (740) 695-8510; Belmont Technical College, (740) 695-1720; West Virginia Northern Community College, (304) 233-5900.

Valenti can be reached at



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