A new study from the American Psychological Association (APA) is the latest mark in how 21st century longevity must become a driver for profound social and economic change. APA underscores that education for older adults isn't simply a question of economic participation, but of health. The new study finds that older adults who take college courses may be at a reduced risk for dementia. If, as APA suggests, college attendance can significantly improve older adults' cognitive capacity, and even have an impact on Alzheimer's, this is a big deal. How is this not a huge incentive to bring changes in education along with accepted approaches to financial and health planning as part of 21st century life?
Older people on college campuses have long been a source of humor: think Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School and "You're my boy, Blue" in Old School. But when 20, 30, and even 40 percent of the population is over 60, these well-worn comedic tropes become less funny. For every pair of Uggs on the Quad, there should also be a pair of Velcro Stretch Walkers.
The case for older adults being a driver for 21st century economic growth and development is well established. And the case for ongoing education to keep them integrated into the heart of the economy is common sense.
Global institutions like the OECD, G20, and APEC have been making these claims for years. And leading businesses have been aggressively -- and progressively -- rethinking how they employ and train their aging workforces. Indeed, as colleges cling to traditional models of educating the young, businesses are stepping up and taking education into their own hands.
The effects on health and economics ought to be sufficient to lead for real change.
This is no small thing. Dr. Peter Piot, who led the global crusade against HIV/AIDS over the past two decades, has rightly identified Alzheimer's as a "ticking time-bomb." Alzheimer's Disease International estimates that Alzheimer's consumes an incredible 1 percent of global GDP -- a figure that, in a few years time, will seem quaint. As the over-60 population grows faster than any other, rates of Alzheimer's are poised to skyrocket.
So what is to be done?
First, we need to shed the antiquated belief that college is only appropriate in the narrow window between 18 and 22. This is nothing but a manifestation of the myth that improving or investing in older adults is a waste of effort. The same line of thinking holds we should all retire at 60, and that longevity will inevitably restrain economic growth. Neither are true.
Second, strategies to integrate older adults into universities and more creative and flexible ongoing education settings, including online, should be just the beginning of a wider effort to enable a healthy aging process. As highlighted by a recent WHO report, we will also need to implement health policies that address the natural deterioration of our skin, vision, hearing, muscles and bone.
Beyond personal health, restructuring traditional approaches to education could unlock wider sources of value. Consider the college affordability debate. Currently it focuses exclusively on the value of education for younger students, ignoring the possible health and economic benefits of taking post-secondary classes across one's life course, including later in life. Although college is expensive, investing in an older class of students would realize significant returns by reducing the burden of dementia and cultivating of a more skilled, older workforce.
Indeed, educating older workers is crucial to maintaining economic vitality in the coming decades. As aging overhauls our workforce, retooling more senior employees' capabilities will allow forward-looking companies and communities to adapt to a transformed demographic reality, and utilize their most knowledgeable workers as a competitive advantage.
Ultimately, college attendance, and the institution of education itself, is one of many we will need to re-shape for a century that will be defined by population aging. Such innovative policies and practices can embrace older adults' health, knowledge and capabilities as valued assets, leveraging the full extent of 21st century longevity.
Like the workplace and the world at large, its time for the classroom to be multigenerational.