Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Education and the Aging Brain

Can lifelong education be used to hold off cognitive decline in older adults?

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. Henry Ford

How important is lifelong learning for older adults?

Along with severe neurocognitive conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, people over the age of sixty or seventy increasingly tend to experience what they describe as "senior moments." These are memory lapses that are commonly regarded as a sign of old age and an inevitable part of the aging process. While most of these lapses tend to be relatively minor and rarely lead to anything more serious, the fear of dementia is something that everyone faces sooner or later, whether in themselves or their aging parents.

Researchers have long been exploring different medical options to help older adults cope with aging but staying active remains the best way to preserve health for as long as possible. Along with physical exercise however, it is also important to encourage older adults to be mentally active as well. This ties into what researchers refer to as cognitive reserve (CR), or the ability of the mind to resist damage. Whether the damage occurs due to normal aging, physical trauma, or emotional trauma, how well we are able to function often depends on how efficiently we are able to compensate for lost brain functioning.

One of the first research studies to identify the importance of cognitive reserve was published in the Annals of Neurology in 1988. By studying the brains of 137 elderly persons diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, researchers found a large discrepancy between the amount of brain pathology present compared to the actual dementia symptoms the seniors displayed at the time of death. The researchers concluded that dementia patients with a higher cognitive reserve were able to avoid many of the more severe aspects of their disease for as long as possible. In other words, their brains were more resilient allowing them to cope with the loss of neurons that comes with advancing dementia.

Although there is a strong genetic component to cognitive reserve, research has shown that lifestyle factors can also boost the brain's natural resilience. This includes being exposed to an enriched environment with many opportunities for physical, mental, and social stimulation.

There are numerous anecdotes about famous people staying active and productive into extreme old age, largely because of the mental and physical challenges they faced on a routine basis. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book at the age of 64 and continued writing for the rest of her life. Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence and continued to be an elder statesman of the new United States until his death at the age of 85. Peter Mark Roget first published his classic Thesaurus when he was 73 and continued editing later editions until his death at age 90.

Even a good physical exercise routine can help older adults stay mentally active given the challenges involved with aging. But what about something as basic as education?

While there has long been a tendency to regard higher education as being something reserved for young people, more seniors than ever are returning to school to continue their education for vocational upgrading or simple enjoyment. Universities around the world are encouraging this trend with curriculums specifically tailored to adults fifty years of age and older and even providing financial assistance for older students.

Recognizing the potential value of lifelong education in boosting cognitive reserve in older adults, the Tasmanian Healthy Brains Project (THBP) was launched in 2011. Intended as a collaboration between the University of Tasmania and the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre in Hobart, Tasmania, the THBP focuses on how tertiary education later in life can reduce age-related cognitive decline, significantly delay the onset of dementia, or even help prevent it completely. Through annual testing of a sample of older adults participating in higher education versus a matched control group, researchers hope to examine genetic and environmental risk factors for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia and identify specific lifestyle factors that can help older adults stay healthy.

A new article published in the journal Neuropsychology presents some of the most recent THBP findings looking at cognitive reserve in older adults. A team of researchers led by Megan E. Lenahan and James C. Vickers of the University of Tasmania examined 459 adults aged 50 to 79 who were enrolled in the THBP as of December 2014. All participants were volunteers who agreed to be in either the education group or the control group. The 359 adults in the education group completed a minimum of 12 months part-time or full-time education while the 100 control participants completed no formal education at all. Any participant with a medical, psychiatric, or neurological disorder was dropped from the study to avoid potential problems.

All participants completed a series of tests to measure cognitive reserve, dementia symptoms, general well-being, and physical health. They were then retested on an annual basis over the course of the four-year study to measure changes in neurological functioning over time. While the control subjects tended to be older than the education subjects (average age of 62.2 at baseline for control participants vs. 59.5 for education participants), there were no other demographic differences.

Results showed that education does seem to have a positive effect on cognitive reserve over time. For the education participants, 92.5 percent showed a significant increase while the remaining 7.5 percent generally remained the same. Interestingly enough, those participants who showed no increase already had cognitive reserve scores that were well above average suggesting that their brains were already operating at peak efficiency and were not as likely to benefit from further education. By contrast, the majority of control participants showed little real increase. For those control participants who did show increased cognitive reserve over time, their scores tended to be well below average for their age group.

In discussing their results, the THBP researchers admitted to a possible self-selection bias in their study. Participants in the education group may be more prone to pursue activities that would boost cognitive reserve than the participants in the control group so more research is needed to explore how education can improve senior health.

While pursuing higher education isn't an option that may be available or practical for many seniors, this study does help demonstrate the health value of lifelong education. And there are alternatives that may prove to be just as effective in helping seniors stay mentally active. Whether it involves learning a new language, a new skill, or how to play a musical instrument, the range of educational options available for seniors is greater than ever with more opportunities arising every day. With telecommunications and the Internet, many seniors can attend classes without even leaving their homes though the social interaction of dealing with teachers and fellow students may also be important in providing seniors with the mental stimulation they need to stay healthy.

With the Baby Boom generation grows older, providing medical care and emotional support for seniors worldwide may well overwhelm our health care system in the years to come. As research such as this new THBP study suggests, providing opportunities for seniors to stay physically and mentally fit, whether through higher education or something equivalent, represents one way to ensure that older adults remain active and independent for as long as possible.