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Aging and Medical Science: A Mini Medical School

Aging and Medical Science: A Mini Medical School

How It Began


Michael K. McCloud, MD

The concept of a Mini-Medical School, a series of lectures given by medical school faculty to acquaint the general public with basic medical research in medical science, was borne at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in 1989. Subsequently for several years Pfizer Corporation became the dominant sponsor of such programs, offering several ten thousand dollar grants to medical schools each year.

In late 2001, I was able to secure a ten thousand dollar grant from Pfizer with a proposal that UC Davis would conduct a Mini Medical School in the Spring of 2002, uniquely focused for “community seniors and others interested in exploring aging and modern science.” Rather than basic science lectures, the program would cover multiple clinical topics of immediate relevance to our community’s burgeoning population of retirees. The curriculum would be:

Week #1 “The Anatomy of Aging.” A geriatrician looks at what we have learned about human aging from some remarkable long-term studies over the past half century. We explore the individual variations in aging, the influence of lifestyle choices, what is inevitable with age—and what is not.

Week #2 “The Expert Update on Osteoarthritis” a rheumatologist and chief of the division of General Medicine at UC Davis covers new thinking about osteoarthritis or “degenerative joint disease.” Learn about diagnosis, prevention, and effective treatments.

Week #3 “Pharmacology 101 for Seniors” A pharmacist educator and head of UC Davis’ managed care pharmacy shares vital information about medications in later age. Learn how commonly used medications can enhance quality of life, or be a prescription for peril. Are botanical and alternative medications safe? How can medications be made more affordable? What is the role of today’s pharmacist in an era of mail-in prescriptions?

Week #4 “Depression, Anxiety, and Older Age” a geriatric psychiatrist explores the realm of mood disorders in later age. Information on cultural and gender differences in depression are stressed. The relationship between depression and dementias, such as Alzheimer’s, is explored.

Week #5 “Beating Osteoporosis” It’s not just a woman’s disease. Learn about new tools to determine bone density and remarkable new medications to prevent and treat this insidiously dangerous disease. An endocrinologist specializing in bone disorders explains new approaches to a disorder once thought inevitable with age.

Week #6 “Getting the Most out of your Physician Visit”. A faculty general internist teaches strategies to bridge the communication gap between patient and doctor. How to prepare for a medical office visit, and reduce the chance of medication errors.

Week #7 “Nutrition Update” A broad array of nutrition topics is covered by a PhD nutritionist, including his own research on anorexia (decreased appetite) in the aging population.

Week #8 “When Memory Fails: Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease”. A board-certified geriatrician and member of the Alzheimer’s Association Medical-Scientific Council looks at the memory changes of normal aging that are mistaken for Alzheimer’s, and how Alzheimer’s can be diagnosed and treated. Ways to reduce risk of getting Alzheimer’s are discussed.

The eight weekly evening classes would be 90 minutes in length, including 15 minutes of question and answer with the students. Syllabus material would be provided for each class. Those attending at least seven of the eight classes would receive a Mini Medical School Diploma, at a commencement ceremony and reception following the final class. There would be no tuition fee.

We originally reserved a room for 150 at the Maidu Community Center in Roseville, a suburb north of Sacramento that is surrounded by retirement communities including two Del Webb Sun City communities. The program was promoted through flyers, direct mailings and newspaper advertisements bearing the message:
Over 60? Have a Few Tuesday Evenings Free this Spring?
Why Not Go to Medical School?
UC Davis School of Medicine Presents
Aging and Medical Science: A Mini Medical School

We obtained two additional sponsors, local assisted living facilities, to raise a total of $17,500 to cover the program’s expenses. The medical center’s public relations department contributed generously to advertising costs including printing and mailing costs.

We were deluged with inquiries and requests for enrollment in the Mini Medical School. After turning away many callers because we had reached the 150 enrollment mark, we negotiated for a larger auditorium at the same community center.

Ultimately we enrolled 510 students, ranging in age from 40 to 97, for our program in March-May, 2002. 90% of students were over age 55. The largest class attendance was 304. 258 students qualified for diploma, and 52 were acknowledged for perfect attendance. Course evaluations were obtained from most students, and the top-rated classes were “The Anatomy of Aging” and “When Memory Fails.”

A small team of volunteers from the division of General Medicine and the UC Davis Center for Healthy Aging provided the registration, enrollment, and audiovisual help. Ushers were provided by one of our sponsoring corporations. Sponsors were allowed promotional tables at the back of the auditorium, but had no influence over curriculum content or classroom agenda.

Feedback from the graduates continued to arrive for months following the program, with many graduates eager to re-enroll the following year. Some students commented about taking their lecture materials to their own physician visits. Virtually 100% of feedback was laudatory, including such poignant remarks as “It was worth missing Jeopardy!”

In the Spring of 2003 we repeated the program at the Sunset Community Center in Rocklin, another area abundant with retirees. We replaced the four lowest evaluated lectures with “Fitness and Function”, “Heart and Circulation: Update 2003”, and “Senior Survival Skills”, a class co-taught by the director of gerontology at California State University, Sacramento, and the senior affairs editor from the Sacramento Bee newspaper. Again, a formal graduation ceremony was held after the final class, including a cap and gown commencement address by Phyllis Wise, then Dean of Biological Sciences.

320 students enrolled for the 2003 class, but because we now required that enrollees commit to the entire program, class size was about the same as the year before. We gathered more detailed demographic information on our students this time. 65% were female. 57% were college educated, and 20% had an advanced degree. 81% were homeowners. The farthest traveling graduate was from Lima, Peru.

Feedback from the students was again overwhelmingly enthusiastic. As one graduate noted, “I was extremely thrilled that you offered this series again. I need to keep my mind and body working—using GREAT medical knowledge.” Another expressed thanks for “Lots of technical information, made easy to understand.”

In the Spring of 2004, we moved the “Medical Science and Aging” Mini Medical School to our main medical center campus in mid-town Sacramento, successfully attracting a more culturally diverse student body. We secured the ballroom of a Marriott Courtyard hotel on our campus, and offered the program on Saturday mornings in March and April. We were able to attract enrollees who could not drive at night, or relied on public transportation. We now offered a modest continental breakfast, much appreciated by the students at 9 AM on a Saturday morning.

By this point, local radio, newspaper and magazine media had become interested in our unique educational program for seniors. Direct mailings were no longer necessary, and most enrollees were referred by previous students or by their own physicians. A one-page advertisement in Sacramento Magazine also stimulated considerable interest in enrollment.

On the Friday evening before our first 2004 Mini Medical School class, our Center for Health Aging thoughtfully coordinated a “V.I.P.” dinner banquet to showcase our program and celebrate its success. Community and university leaders, sponsors, faculty, and some of our more memorable “graduates” were entertained with a slide program, keynote speaker, and a tribute to the volunteers who make the program possible. The evening was done on a shoestring budget, with most expenses met by corporate sponsors.

Because the medical campus Marriott ballroom seating was limited to 200 students, we made it clear to prospective students that a commitment to attend the full Mini Medical School program was necessary for matriculation. At the start of the first class, we had 720 requests for 200 seats. Anticipating that some enrollees would not show, a separate room was utilized for “stand by seating,” thus assuring no empty seats.

The 2004 “Aging and Medical Science” mini medical school once again proved a resounding success. Highlights included an outstanding class on aging and the eye (featuring an actual cataract extraction operation on video), and a discussion of hormones and aging by Phyllis Wise, PhD, the same weekend her research team was the cover story of Parade Sunday Magazine. Statistics gathered from that year’s student body include:

Applicants for enrollment: 720
Requested waiting list: 406
Diplomas awarded: 164
Students age 91 or older: 2
Mean age: approximately 70

Course evaluations from the students included these comments:
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to grow and understand the medical field”
“Great information and presenters—a gift—thank you.”
“Because of the high demand for this class, I don’t think you should allow people to repeat the class.”
“Great Program! Great service to the community! Well qualified speakers—all with pleasant, professional presentation skills.”
“The VERY BEST educational program offered to seniors in the Sacramento area.”
“On a scale of ‘zero to ten’, I would rate the Mini Medical School an eleven!”
“I am especially appreciative that the Mini Medical School has been free.”
“Priceless! We are probably all living more effectively, intelligently, and happily (because of the program.)”
“Put this series on PBS.”

It appeared that our “Aging and Medical Science: A Mini Medical School” would become an open-ended community outreach project. For the Spring of 2005 we moved to the 425 seat Life Sciences Lecture Hall on the main university campus in Davis, California. A community banquet was held the evening before class kick-off, with attendance of 200 community and university leaders.

The program has enrolled to capacity each year since, with a total of seven graduating classes as of March, 2009. More than 2500 individuals have matriculated in UC Davis Mini Medical School on learning to age.

We are just beginning.


Michael K. McCloud, MD
Creator and Course Director
“Aging and Medical Science: A Mini Medical School to Prepare for Life’s Second Half”