ZÜRICH, Switzerland — Getting a great education doesn’t just help people be more successful today, it may also keep them alive longer in the future. A new study finds that people with a stronger academic background show fewer signs of age-related mental decline during old age.
Researchers from the University of Zurich add that the brains of “academics” are better able to compensate for the natural cognitive declines that come with getting old and also have less damage connected to brain degeneration and disease.
Study authors followed over 200 healthy seniors for more than seven years during this study. Each participant was free of dementia and had average to above average intelligence at the start of the experiment. Over the next seven years, the team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to keep track of the group’s brain health and found a link between each person’s education history and age-related brain degeneration.
Specifically, researchers looked at the development of “lacunes” (or gaps) and white matter hyperintensities in each senior’s brain over time. This degenerative damage shows up as “black holes” and “white spots” on brain scans. Scientists aren’t sure why they form, but they may have to do with reduced blood flow or the loss of nerve pathways and neurons in the brain.
Overall, seniors with a greater academic background had significantly less age-related brain degeneration than their less-educated peers.
“In addition, academics also processed information faster and more accurately – for example, when matching letters, numbers of patterns. The decline in their mental processing performance was lower overall,” reports first author Isabel Hotz in a university release.
Building up an education ‘reserve’
The new study builds on previous ones that show a positive link between education and brain aging. Prior studies also point to a person’s mental processing speed being dependent on the strength of their brain’s neural networks. When injury, disease, or aging weakens these networks, mental processing speed drops.
“We suspect that a high level of education leads to an increase in neural and cognitive networks over the course of people’s lives, and that they build up reserves, so to speak. In old age, their brains are then better able to compensate any impairments that occur,” explains neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke.
The study is published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.