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Staying in School Helps Maintain Brain Function Through Adulthood, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • How much education you receive early in life can affect your cognitive function as you age, new research finds.
  • The review challenges past theories related to "cognitive reserve," or the mind's ability to continue to process tasks, maintain memories, etc. despite the effects of aging.
  • Still, researchers note that education can help delay the onset of dementia and that educational attainment early in life can be tied to other factors that affect cognitive decline, like cardiovascular health.

New research shows that adults may have been onto something when they told you to "stay in school" as a kid.

A new review, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found that formal education is strongly related to cognitive functioning across all adult ages, cultural contexts, races, and genders. The paper finds that education, especially earlier in life, can play a role in delaying the onset of dementia.

"From a public-health perspective, education appears to be one of the best-established preventive measures for dementia, and newly emerging evidence appears to suggest that this effect is partly causal," says Serhiy Dekhtyar, PhD, assistant professor at the Karolinska Institute's Aging Research Center in Solna, Sweden. "Expanding early life educational opportunities is likely to yield considerable benefits for cognitive health."

The Review's Findings

Past research has shown that "the number of years of formal education completed by individuals is positively correlated with their cognitive function throughout adulthood and predicts lower risk of dementia late in life," researchers wrote.

As a result, they evaluated two questions: whether formal education is correlated with cognitive function, and whether higher education is associated with reduced risk of dementia.

They found that formal education is strongly related to levels of cognitive functioning across ages, cultural contexts, races, and genders. But, regarding the second question, they found that "education appears to exhibit an only negligible association with aging-related cognitive decline," says Laura Fratiglioni, MD, PhD, co-author of the paper and senior professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences, and Society at the Karolinska Institute.

"...We provide evidence that education affects the level of cognitive performance, but not the cognitive decline observed during the aging process," Fratiglioni says. "In other words, persons with a higher number of schooling years reach old age with a cognitive capacity that is higher than the capacity of individuals with lower years of schooling. However, both groups (higher and lower educated persons) decline cognitively at the same speed when getting older."

Serhiy Dekhtyar, PhD

Expanding early life educational opportunities is likely to yield considerable benefits for cognitive health.

— Serhiy Dekhtyar, PhD

The well-established association between education and dementia, Fratiglioni says, is "likely not due to the role of education in cognitive trajectories, but rather is a result of the threshold model of dementia, whereby highly educated individuals cross the functional threshold of cognitive impairment at a later point in time since they had achieved higher peak levels of cognitive performance prior in life."

The conclusion challenges existing theories of cognitive aging, Fratiglioni says, such as cognitive reserve, "defined as individual ability to process cognitive tasks despite the deleterious effects of brain aging and related pathology."

Though more education doesn't necessarily decrease the risk of dementia, it can help delay the onset of dementia by affecting other risk factors, a point that Fratiglioni and her colleagues emphasize in another review published in The Lancet: Neurology.

Fratiglioni says, "This beneficial effect can be due to the direct effect on a cognitive level, but also through the promotion of healthy lifestyle, lower vascular burden, and higher engagement in social activities."

Education as a Form Of Prevention

Researchers write that public health methods for reducing the risk of dementia have to be holistic. "Improving the conditions that shape development during the first decades of life carries great potential for improving cognitive ability in early adulthood and for reducing public-health burdens related to cognitive aging and dementia," they write.

Improving access to education should also be among those preventive methods. "Expanding early life educational opportunities is likely to yield considerable benefits for cognitive health," Dekhtyar says. "Although late-life schooling interventions are seemingly less successful than early-life education, the window of opportunity for intervention does not close after formal schooling is completed.

Dekhtyar continues, "As discussed in our Lancet Neurology review, ensuring balance between demands and control at work, supporting individuals in being physically, mentally, and socially active throughout life, and reducing loneliness, can also help forestall the onset of dementia."

What This Means For You

This review stresses the importance of closing gaps in educational opportunities. Research has yet to directly tie educational disparities to higher rates of Alzheimer's among Black Americans, for example. However, research has found that access to lower quality education (particularly among low-income Americans and racial minorities) is linked to other health issues like diabetes or cardiovascular disease. These health issues in turn can affect cognitive decline and risk of dementia.

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