Education Benefits the Brain Over a Lifetime

A new study confirms what your parents always told you: Getting an education opens the door to career opportunities and higher salaries. But it may also benefit your well-being in old age.

“The total amount of formal education that people receive is related to their average levels of cognitive [mental] functioning throughout adulthood,” said researcher Elliot Tucker-Drob, from the University of Texas, Austin. “However, it is not appreciably related to their rates of aging-related cognitive declines,” he added in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers said that people with more education have a higher level of mental function in early and middle adulthood, so the effects of brain aging are less obvious initially.

In other words, people who go further in school may have a longer period of mental impairment before going below the “functional threshold” — the point when brain decline becomes so obvious it interferes with daily activities, the study authors explained.

This finding disputes the theory that formal education in childhood and early adulthood protects against cognitive aging.

According to study co-author Martin Lövdén, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, “Individuals vary in their rates of aging-related cognitive declines, but these individual differences are not appreciably related to educational attainment.”

For the study, the researchers looked at data from dozens of previously published studies. They found that adults with more years of formal schooling have higher mental functioning, on average, than those with fewer years of schooling.

The study emphasizes the importance of formal education for the well-being of individuals and societies throughout life, including old age, Tucker-Drob noted.

“This message may be particularly relevant as governments decide if, when, and how to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such decisions could have consequences for many decades to come,” he said.

The report was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Source: HealthDay

Early-life Education Improves Memory in Old Age — Especially for Women

Education appears to protect older adults, especially women, against memory loss, according to a study by investigators at Georgetown University Medical Center, published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.

The results suggest that children — especially girls — who attend school for longer will have better memory abilities in old age. This may have implications for memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

The study tested declarative memory in 704 older adults (58-98 years of age). Declarative memory refers to our ability to remember events, facts and words, such as where you put your keys or the name of that new neighbor.

Participants were shown drawings of objects, and then were tested several minutes later on their memory of these objects. The investigators found that their memory performance became progressively worse with aging. However, more years of early-life education countered these losses, especially in women.

In men, the memory gains associated with each year of education were two times larger than the losses experienced during each year of aging. However, in women, the gains were five times larger.

For example, the declarative memory abilities of an 80-year-old woman with a bachelor’s degree would be as good as those of a 60-year-old woman with a high school education. So, four extra years of education make up for the memory losses from 20 years of aging.

“Simply said, learning begets learning,” says the study’s senior investigator, Michael Ullman, PhD, a professor in Georgetown’s Department of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Language Lab. Ullman’s research on the relationship between language, memory and the brain has been a cornerstone in the fields of language and cognitive neuroscience.

“Since learning new information in declarative memory is easier if it is related to knowledge we already have, more knowledge from more education should result in better memory abilities, even years later,” adds the study’s lead author, Jana Reifegerste, PhD, a member of the scientific staff at the University of Potsdam, Germany, who worked on this study as a postdoctoral researcher in Ullman’s lab.

“Evidence suggests that girls often have better declarative memory than boys, so education may lead to greater knowledge gains in girls,” says Ullman. “Education may thus particularly benefit memory abilities in women, even years later in old age.”

The study tested individuals in a non-Western (Taiwanese) population. Participants varied in the number of years of education, from none at all to graduate studies. Future research is needed to test whether the findings generalize to other populations, Ullman says.

“These findings may be important, especially considering the rapidly aging population globally,” Reifegerste says. “The results argue for further efforts to increase access to education.”

“Education has also been found to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” Ullman says. “We believe that our findings may shed light on why this occurs.”

Source: Georgetown University Medical Center


Today’s Comic

Study: No Association Between Higher Education and Alzheimer’s Disease

Serena Gordon wrote . . . . . . . . .

There are plenty of good reasons to seek a higher education, but avoiding Alzheimer’s disease probably isn’t one of them, new research suggests.

The study found that a person’s level of education wasn’t related to the onset of memory and thinking (“cognitive”) troubles, or the rate at which dementia progressed.

“Education is related to cognitive growth in early life, but it wasn’t associated with cognitive change as you age. What’s more important is what you’re doing now, than what you did 40 or 50 years ago,” explained study author Robert Wilson. He’s a neuropsychologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Wilson said that continuing to do things such as learning a new language, social activities, having a purpose in life, or engaging in mentally demanding work may help keep your brain sharper as you get older.

Previous research has hinted that there might be a link between education and a person’s risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or how fast the disease advances. But the results of a number of studies looking at this possible link have had mixed results.

To try to get a more definitive answer, the investigators looked at two groups of people who participated in previous studies. One group included older Catholic clergy members from across the United States. The other group was adults from the Chicago area who had been in the Rush Memory and Aging Project.

Nearly 3,000 people were included. All of the study participants had annual testing and agreed to a brain autopsy when they died.

The average age of participants at the start of the study was 78 years old. Most (74 percent) were women, and the majority (89 percent) were white.

The study volunteers were well-educated, with an average of 16 years of education. The researchers split them into three groups: education of 12 or fewer years; 13 to 16 years of education; and 17 or more years.

The average follow-up time during the study was eight years. During the follow-up, nearly 700 people developed dementia, the researchers said.

People who had a higher education did have greater thinking and memory skills when the study began. But, there was no association between higher education and a slower decline in thinking and memory.

More education also didn’t seem to affect the age people were when they had noticeable thinking and memory issues. Wilson said the autopsies showed that education level didn’t appear to affect the way dementia changes the brain either.

The researchers noted that one limitation of this study is that they started with a group of very educated people. If a wider range of education levels were compared, it’s possible there might be a difference.

Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association, agreed that the high level of education among the population studied may have made any differences more difficult to tease out.

“I think the jury is still out on the formal education question,” Fargo said.

“I don’t want people to walk away from this study thinking there’s nothing they can do. This study was very specific to how many years of formal education someone has. But it doesn’t say anything about ongoing cognitive stimulation,” he noted.

Lifelong learning and continuing to participate in activities that stimulate your brain may be protective, Fargo said. Exercising and eating a healthy diet also appear to keep the brain healthy as you age.

The findings were published online in the journal Neurology.

Source: HealthDay

High Levels of Education Linked to Heightened Brain Tumor Risk

Gliomas, in particular, more common among university-educated, large observational study shows.

A university degree is linked to a heightened risk of developing a brain tumour, suggests a large observational study, published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Gliomas, in particular, were more common among people who had studied at university for at least three years than they were among those who didn’t go on to higher education, the data show.

The researchers base their findings on more than 4.3 million Swedes, all of whom were born between 1911 and 1961 and living in Sweden in 1991.

They were monitored between 1993 and 2010 to see if they developed a primary brain tumour, and information on educational attainment, disposable income, marital status, and occupation was obtained from national insurance, labour market,and national census data.

During the monitoring period, 1.1 million people died and more than 48,000 emigrated, but 5735 of the men and 7101 of the women developed a brain tumour.

Men with university level education, lasting at least three years, were 19% more likely to develop a glioma–a type of cancerous tumour arising in glial cells that surround and support neurons in the brain–than men whose educational attainment didn’t extend beyond the period of compulsory schooling (9 years).

Among women, the magnitude of risk was 23% higher for glioma, and 16% higher for meningioma–a type of mostly non-cancerous brain tumour arising in the layers of tissue (meninges) that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord–than it was for women who didn’t go on to higher education.

Taking account of potentially influential factors, such as marital status and disposable income, only marginally affected the size of the risk, and only among the men.

High levels of disposable income were associated with a 14% heightened risk of glioma among men, but had no bearing on the risk of either meningioma or acoustic neuroma–a type of non-cancerous brain tumour that grows on the nerve used for hearing and balance.

Nor was disposable income associated with heightened risk of any type of brain tumour among the women.

Occupation also seemed to influence risk for men and women. Compared with men in manual roles, professional and managerial roles (intermediate and high non-manual jobs) were associated with a 20% heightened risk of glioma and a 50% heightened risk of acoustic neuroma.

The risk of glioma was also 26% higher among women in professional and managerial roles than it was for women in manual roles, while the risk of meningioma was 14% higher.

Single men also seemed to have a significantly lower risk of glioma than married/co-habiting men, but, on the other hand, they had a higher risk of meningioma. No such associations were evident among the women.

This is an observational study so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and the researchers point out that they were not able to glean information on potentially influential lifestyle factors.

But they emphasise that their findings were consistent, and they point to the strengths of using population data.

Source: BMJ