Education May Protect the Aging Brain

Mother always said to stay in school, right? Well it turns out those classroom hours may count for more than just grades on a report card. The New England Journal of Medicine has published some findings out of Boston University regarding the effects of education on cognitive health later in life. This new research stems from the Framingham Heart Study—an ongoing experiment that has looked at the health and well-being of thousands of people over the course of several decades. Essentially, the researchers concluded that staying in school may help you maintain cognitive fitness down the road.

Staving Off Cognitive Decline 
After following nearly 5,000 individuals, aged 60 or older, researchers noted an interesting trend. From the 1970s to early 2010s, there appears to be a progressive decline in the risk of developing dementia (cognitive impairments). This finding, however, was only true for individuals with at least a high school diploma. Interestingly this same “high school diploma factor” was also associated with cardiovascular health—meaning education might be as good for the body as it is for the mind.

What About Cause and Effect?
The decline in dementia described in this new study contrasts some existing projections of cognitive health for the future. Scientists are pretty much expecting a HUGE increase in the rates of both dementia and Alzheimer’s as more and more baby boomers enter old age. It seems like a contradiction, but it could be because the population of older adults is expected to more than double by the year 2050 (that is, the growth rate of the older population is much faster than any decreases in dementia rates).

You might be wondering just what dementia is anyway. Dementia is basically an umbrella term used to describe various diseases or cognitive impairments that can lead to diagnosable conditions like Alzheimer’s. So where does education come into play? Some scientists think that education may lead to more job opportunities, which in turn can promote a more wholesome lifestyle and provide access to healthcare. Additionally, as we’ve noted before, consistent cognitive challenges may actually make the brain more efficient, preventing those blips in reasoning and logic that can occur with age. And beyond all these effects on the brain, time in school has been associated with just living longer in general. Since we all know that knowledge is power, it seems that any protocol for a healthy lifestyle should involve some time hitting the books.

(Feature photo courtesy of pixabay.com)

Samantha Lunsky

Samantha Lunsky is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.