NEWS

Life-Long Learning Has Positive Impact on Brain Health and Aging

drawing of older woman reading a book

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that taking an academic career path has a positive effect on brain health.
  • According to researchers, some of the degenerative processes associated with aging are reduced in academics' brains.
  • But experts say you don't have to work in academia to keep your brain healthy your entire life.

Working in academia isn't for everyone, but it can have numerous perks. Depending on who you ask, these range from intellectual freedom to generous annual leave. But it goes a little deeper than that—initial findings from a long-term study, published in NeuroImage: Clinical, found that a lifelong career in academia can also have a positive effect on brain health. 

Researchers from the University of Zurich found that some of the degenerative processes associated with aging are reduced in the brains of academics. This begs the question, what are the benefits of lifelong learning and education for everybody—not just those who work in academia? 

The Study in Detail

The new study, carried out by a team from the University of Zurich Research Priority Program "Dynamics of Healthy Aging", followed more than 200 senior citizens for more than seven years. The participants were not affected by dementia, enjoyed extremely active social lives, and displayed average to above-average intelligence. 

Isabel Hotz

An academic education could have a positive effect on the aging of the brain.

— Isabel Hotz

“The global population of older people is growing and age-related diseases are on the rise,” says study author Isabel Hotz. “The incidence of cerebral small vessel disease (CSVD) increases with age, leading to a significant risk of cerebral impairment and reduced quality of life.”

As Hotz points out, there’s a lack of evidence on how or whether people without dementia with cinically “silent” CSVD markers—like lacunar infarcts and deep microbleeds—should be treated. So the researchers set out to examine the longitudinal associations between various neuroimaging markers for CSVD and cognitive performance and general demographics such as age, sex, and education.

In her PhD thesis, Hotz studied degenerative processes that showed up as "black holes" and "white spots" on digital images. Experts don’t know the exact reasons for this, but it may be to do with minor, undetected cerebral infarcts, reduced blood flow, or loss of nerve pathways or neurons. This can reduce cognitive performance, especially when key regions of the brain degenerate.

Hotz and her team discovered that over a seven-year period, senior citizens with an academic background showed a significantly lower increase in these common signs of brain degeneration. Academics also processed information faster and more accurately, for example when they matched letters, numbers, or patterns. “An academic education could have a positive effect on the aging of the brain,” concludes Hotz.

How to Keep Our Brains Healthy

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, believes that research is important. “We can all learn from it to help improve our lives,” he says. “It shows that we need to keep our minds active and engaged, and that the more we use our brains in life, the less likely we will have degeneration in older age.”

Julian Lagoy, MD

There are plenty of things you can do in your daily life, such as having thought-provoking conversations or watching intelligent, educational TV shows, like documentaries, to keep your brain healthy.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

Education and lifelong learning help us use our brains to their maximum potential by stirring up our curiosity and intellect, Dr. Lagoy adds. The more you use your brain, the more oxygen it requires, and your body increases blood flow to it to fulfill the higher demand. This is what keeps it healthy and active and benefits brain health.

"It's similar to how cardio exercise every day helps benefit the health of your heart," Dr. Lagoy explains. "It’s just like working out your other muscles, he explains: "The more you keep the mind engaged the healthier you are for it, whereas if you don't use it regularly, it is more likely to atrophy."

However, you don’t have to work in academia to keep your mind engaged and stimulated. “There are plenty of things you can do in your daily life, such as having thought-provoking conversations or watching intelligent, educational TV shows, like documentaries, to keep your brain healthy,” Dr. Lagoy says.

What This Means For You

To keep your brain in tip-top condition, try doing something intellectually stimulating every day. This may be different for each person, so think about what you enjoy. You might try reading, keeping in touch with current events and the latest news in science and medicine, or having deep conversations with your partner, family, or friends. Or you might want to learn a language or a new practical skill, or enroll in a course to learn about a subject that interests you.

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  1. Hotz I, Deschwanden PF, Mérillat S, Liem F, Kollias S, Jäncke L. Associations of subclinical cerebral small vessel disease and processing speed in non-demented subjects: A 7-year studyNeuroImage: Clinical. 2021;32:102884. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102884