Medical research has shown that as people age, intellectual stimulation and social interaction promote healthy minds.

Share story

Josh and Susan Fried attend classes three days a week but they never receive any grades or cram for midterms or finals.

They are not trying to earn an additional degree or retrain for a new career.

Both are 68; they just want to learn with other like-minded adults.

Josh Fried retired from his dental practice eight years ago and moved with his wife, Susan, a former English teacher, to Rockville, Md., from New York, to be closer to family. At the same time, they wanted to expand their life in retirement.

The Frieds are among the 150,000 men and women nationally who participate each year at more than 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. The institutes, affiliated mostly with colleges and universities (including the University of Washington), are among the best-known advanced adult educational programs in the country. They tend to attract educated, passionate people who are seeking intellectual and social stimulation among peers who often become new friends.

They began their journey by going to a one-session class through the Smithsonian Associates Program in Washington, D.C., where another student told Susan Fried about Osher. “Now, we have something to do with our time,” Josh Fried says.

Adult education programs have been a mainstay through local school districts, libraries, recreation departments and senior centers, but lifelong learning programs position themselves as communities where the participants not only take on challenging subjects but seek to engage more deeply with their fellow students.

“The social component of this program is very important to the membership,” Susan Fried says.

Osher at Johns Hopkins has 1,200 members, and 500 on the waiting list. “They don’t want to be isolated,” says Mary Kay Shartle Galotto, director of the local program. “If your mind’s active and you have opportunity for social networking, it gives you a life.”

Medical research has shown that as people age, intellectual stimulation and social interaction promote healthy minds. According to the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center, “staying cognitively active throughout life — via social engagement or intellectual stimulation — is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Another study, in 2012 by scientists at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, also found that frequent participation in “cognitively stimulating activities” — everything from reading to working on crossword puzzles and playing cards to going to museums and attending classes — is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Bernard Osher Foundation, founded in 1977 to support higher education and the arts, has a grant program for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. “All locations are looking to expand services to keep up with the demand,” says David Blazevich, senior program director at the Bernard Osher Foundation in San Francisco.

At Osher, classes are not specifically skill-based, like learning a language or weaving. Instead, students generally delve into subjects they may have been interested in for years but simply didn’t have time to study.

Bill Lewis, 69, and Paula Ramsey Lewis, 67, both had intense careers. They were married in October 2014, and she has been attending classes for three years while he has belonged to Osher for four. Bill Lewis was a senior executive in the federal government; she held numerous positions, among them director of development for the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

“I’m learning a lot of things I didn’t know,” Bill Lewis says. Among their favorite classes are those taught by the journalist Eleanor Clift, including On the Road to the White House. “I think it’s very important that you plan what you are going to do before you retire,” he says.