“Seniors Rock” as they learn the art and science of healthy aging

Hundreds of Hawaii residents are learning the art and science of healthy aging through a 5-year-old program that gives participants the information they need to make vital decisions about how they will spend their later years.

The Dr. Rosita Leong Mini-Medical School on Healthy Aging has attracted 1,768 participants since it began in the spring of 2014. It is a collaboration of the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii Manoa, the UH Cancer Center at UH Manoa, and the not-for-profit University of Hawaii Foundation.

The classes, held on five consecutive Saturday mornings in the Cancer Center conference room in Waterfront Park, begin in the spring and are repeated in the fall; the spring 2019 session ended earlier this month. The sessions can accommodate 175 participants and have become so popular that the waiting list for the fall classes is already at 160.

The classes are open to adults of all ages, but most attendees are Baby Boomers or older who are members of Hawaii’s fastest-growing demographic segment. Hawaii leads the nation in the percentage of its population reaching retirement age, when health issues can multiply. The best way to avoid a social and economic crisis is to keep our aging residents as healthy as possible.

In the interest of transparency, I should note that my wife and I have been attending Mini-Medical School classes since their beginning and strongly support their mission. We, like hundreds of others, have learned how to use the science of medicine to live healthier lives and handle the inevitable effects of growing older.

The Mini-Medical School is the brainchild of Dr. Virginia Hinshaw, chancellor emeritus of UH Manoa and professor of virology in the UH Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology.

“I saw a need,” she told me during a recent visit to her office in the School of Medicine. “These [participants] are active, vital seniors who crave information. There’s so much negative about seniors. Part of my goal is to focus on the positive.”

Hence the slogan: “Seniors Rock!”

Hinshaw also sees the Mini-Medical School as the university’s mahalo to the Hawaii community. The classes are free to participants, although she keeps track of attendance and drops those with unexcused absences from the program.

“They’re there because they want to be there,” she says of those who attend regularly.

The Mini-Medical School operates on donations of time and money, beginning with an endowment from Dr. Rosita Leong, a pathologist, entrepreneur and philanthropist who regularly attends the classes. More than 400 donors have contributed to the school, and presenters rarely charge a fee. Students and staff from UH Manoa and the UH Foundation volunteer their time and talent.

However, Hinshaw is clearly the force that makes the Mini-Medical School succeed. She chooses the topics, finds the speakers, edits the Power Points and presides over the sessions. Because about half of the participants have attended previous sessions, the topics need to be fresh.

She brings a keen sense of humor and an infectious laugh to the sessions, creating a sense of ohana in the spacious room. “You learn better with a smile on your face,” she says.

She also becomes personally involved with participants. She regularly checks the newspaper obit pages, goes to funerals and sends hand-written notes.

And, she takes healthy aging seriously. She is a three-time women’s state masters javelin champion and will compete in a national track and field meet with several other Hawaii women this summer.

The presentations cover the four pillars of aging: physically active, mentally engaged, socially connected and nutritionally balanced.

As the name Mini-Medical School suggests, participants feel that they’re taking introductory classes in an actual medical school. Presenters, most of whom have doctorate or medical degrees, drill deep into how the human body works. Recent classes, for example, dealt with the digestive tract and the brain.

They also offer practical advice. For example, quit smoking and gain seven years to your life expectancy (on average). Exercise 30 minutes a day and gain eight years. Apply sunscreen at least a half hour before going out in the sun; it takes that long to be effective. To maintain your short-term memory, get a good sleep every day to clear the brain of beta amyloid, a neuropeptide that accumulates in patients with Alzheimer’s disease but is positive in regular quantities.

Participants critique the presentations immediately after class and the results are shared with the speakers.

“I’m a researcher by training, so it’s good to know what works and what doesn’t,” Hinshaw says.

As the demand for the Mini-Medical School continues to grow, it has made the presentations available to those who cannot attend in person. On-demand videos of the presentations are available on Spectrum channels 342 and 1342.

Hinshaw notes that members of a typical class have approximately 10,000 years of combined lifetime experiences. That means that participants can learn from one another as they make new friends. There’s also the multiplier effect as participants share their knowledge with their friends and family.

At a recent session, class members learned that the most important factor in maintaining physical, mental and emotional health is social interaction with friends and family as we age. To that end, Hinshaw wants to schedule a class reunion for all Mini-Medical School graduates. She says it will feature speakers, music and, of course, lots of laughter.

To learn more about the Mini-Medical School and to register for future sessions, contact Dr. Virginia Hinshaw at vhinshaw@hawaii.edu.


In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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