Learning new things is how to stay on top of the world. It's important to keep yourself busy.

Always wanted to learn French or Spanish, study art history or join a book club?
Maybe you'd like to discuss psychology or philosophy, try yoga or tai chi, go walking with others, or even have a go at writing your memoirs?

The reasons for lifelong learning are compelling and as a growing body of research shows, both mental and physical fitness are crucial to wellbeing as the body ages.

The University of the Third Age is an international movement dedicated to lifelong learning and gives participants a chance to pursue interests in the company of others.

The movement, known as U3A, is flourishing in the Bay among people in the "third age" - the stage of life after the first age of childhood and the second age of fulltime work and parental responsibility.

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Bay-wide, U3A groups hold regular meetings in people's homes, cafes, restaurants, churches, halls and the outdoors, members learning from one another.

There are book and film clubs, history discussions, music, crafts, board games, walking groups, photography and more.

In Tauranga, U3A has more than 800 members and about 100 groups, including astronomy, opera appreciation, hiking, mahjong and website development.

Those with a passion for food have created ethnic dining and lunch groups, while others meet to discuss current events and Shakespeare.

Joan Gooch organises speakers for the Tauranga U3A's monthly members' meeting at the Wesley Church on 13th Ave.

It costs $20 a year to join U3A and she says the monthly meeting is well attended, usually attracting more than 100 people.

We try and get a cross-section of speakers, people who have had interesting lives, who have lived around the world, travelled or have worked in interesting jobs, and we like a balance of genders.

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U3A began in Tauranga in 1995 and Joan says it has grown rapidly the last few years, fuelled by the number of people moving to the area from other places, particularly Auckland.

"It's a wonderful thing if you don't know anybody and you want to make friends."
Joan, 75, says the fact many groups meet in people's homes makes them personal. "It's a lovely way to get a close acquaintanceship."

Joan and her husband work as relief motel managers and often travel out of town so she is not able to attend as many groups as she would like.

In the past, she belonged to an "acting for fun" group which she loved and still manages to attend an art history discussion.

She says everyone takes a turn selecting a painter of note "or not, as the case may be," and discusses the artist's life and works.

"It's fascinating. "It expands your horizons [because] let's face it, you never stop learning in your life, and you really are better if you keep learning. You're a much more interesting person."

"The third age is that last block of life when people have got more time to pursue things they really wish they could've done," Joan says.

Peter Bell, Convener of psychology group. University of the Third Age. Photo/George Novak
Peter Bell, Convener of psychology group. University of the Third Age. Photo/George Novak

"They can follow their passions - it's really lovely - and meet like minded people."

Angela Dold is a former Aucklander and met Joan through U3A.

"Tauranga's a lovely place to retire," Angela says, "and U3A is a great way of getting to know people quickly."

Angela, 72, joined U3A after moving to the Bay in 2008 and has served in various roles on the Tauranga committee, including as president.

A retired English teacher, she is now convener of two creative writing groups, and has seen U3A Tauranga grow by several hundred members since she joined.

"Learning is lifelong," she says. "It doesn't stop because you retire."

Angela has been a widow for 22 years and says being on your own is even more reason to embrace U3A.

"You have to be proactive when you're on your own. There is no need to be lonely."

She was also diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago, needing to have part of her lung removed, and says the experience has made her aware of life and the importance of pursuing interests and passions.

She writes stories for Tauranga U3A's website and her creative writing groups have just entered the Katikati haiku contest.

"Learning new things is how you stay on top of the world. It's important to keep yourself busy," Angela says.

Peter Bell is convener of Tauranga's U3A psychology group and says participants always have a lot of laughs.

It's a great way of keeping the brain active. "You get to think about what you do. It's very enjoyable and very social.

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The 81-year-old Matua resident had a career in pharmaceutical and orthopaedic sales, at one time selling replacement knee and hip joints to surgeons, and did a course in psychology when he lived in Auckland.

"I'm not a failed doctor or a frustrated doctor, it's just of interest to me. It has always intrigued me why people do the things they do."

The psychology group meets the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at Grindz cafe on First Ave and Peter says psychology books and The Listener magazine often provide inspiration for topics.

Peter's job is to keep discussions on track and topics have included narcissism, road rage, achieving child/controlling mother, religion and the existence of god.
Sometimes the group has guest speakers, a local detective once giving a talk on criminology.

Peter says the psychology group is keen for more members and anyone interested is welcome to contact him (see the Tauranga U3A website for his contact details and more information on other groups).

The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand says the old adage of "use it or lose it" is true not only when exercising the muscles of the body, but also the brain.

"Neuroscience research is continually revealing that building cognitive reserve is beneficial to maintaining mental alertness and to decreasing one's risk of developing Alzheimer's," the foundation says.

Angela Dold met Joan Gooch through U3A. Photo/John Borren
Angela Dold met Joan Gooch through U3A. Photo/John Borren

"A lifestyle that includes stimulating mental activity, especially in the context of social interaction, is clearly correlated with healthy brain ageing and has been a consistent finding from large, well-designed studies of older adults."

Tauranga social gerontologist Carole Gordon is a champion of lifelong learning and says movements such as U3A help give meaning and purpose as life expectancy increases.

Sharing in groups' years of knowledge and wisdom among people who have an interest is a wonderful way to stay engaged.

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Carole, who completed a degree in social science in her 60s, would also like to see more opportunity for lifelong learning at tertiary institutions and says technology can help people achieve entrepreneurial or creative dreams later in life.

"We're living in a great era where people can continue to learn," she says.