Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

College Education: Combating Dementia and Adding Years to Your Brain?

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In a previous post, I discussed intellectual decline and Cato’s famous essay, “On Old Age,” in which he offers some remedies.  Recent findings by the World Health Organization, indicating that levels of dementia around the world will increase three-fold in the next forty years, especially in developed countries where detection is weak and life expectancy high, warrants a revisiting of this subject.  That is why this article in The New York Times caught my attention; psychologists for the Midlife in the United States project, or MIDUS for short, find that a rigorous college education may delay the brain’s aging by up to a decade. 

The psychologists studied nearly 7,000 people with an age range of nearly 50 years.  The project tracks its participants as they age on a variety of physical and emotional health issues; this means researchers have the ability to compare a participant’s older self with his younger self.  The results of complex tests demonstrated that those over fifty performed worse on speed and memory tests than their younger counterparts.  “The aging brain was more easily distracted and slower in retrieving information; it had trouble shushing internal chatter and preventing stray thoughts from interfering with concentration.”

Even after controlling for a host of advantages—income, parental achievement, gender, age, and physical activity—the most recent MIDUS report concluded: “All other things being equal, the more years of school a subject had, the better he or she performed on every mental test.  Up to age 75, the studies showed people with college degrees performed on complex tasks like less-educated individuals who were 10 years younger.”  It remains, however, to what extent education plays a factor.  For instance, educated individuals are more likely to attend lectures, read, write, or engage in other critical thinking activities, making it difficult to isolate, years later, any lingering impact of college education.  Moreover, the study admitted that middle-aged participants who left education early, yet engaged in all the usual activities of the educated, demonstrated scores equal to college graduates.  The study also found that less-educated middle-aged participants improved their brain function through computer use (though results are tepid for higher-educated individuals).

While it is difficult, then, to isolate the exact role of education in preventing the onset of dementia and strengthening brain function without the possibility of spurious factors, this MIDUS study and its preliminary findings, i.e., that educational effects are long term, have the potential to change the cost calculus of attending college—as well as those thinking about returning to school.  Young people think often of career or social benefits in weighing the decision to go to college, focusing myopically on their first job or networking opportunities.  Perhaps, it would behoove them to think of their long-term mental health, too.  After all, in an era when the WHO expects dementia and intellectual decline to triple with the prospect of longer life expectancy in developed countries, retaining robust mental fitness is a concern we should all share.


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