Got cognitive activity? It does a mind good

January 11, 2010, Brandeis University

If you don't have a college degree, you're at greater risk of developing memory problems or even Alzheimer's. Education plays a key role in lifelong memory performance and risk for dementia, and it's well documented that those with a college degree possess a cognitive advantage over their less educated counterparts in middle and old age. Now, a large national study from Brandeis University published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry shows that those with less schooling can significantly compensate for poorer education by frequently engaging in mental exercises such as word games, puzzles, reading, and lectures.

"The lifelong benefits of higher education for memory in later life are quite impressive, but we do not clearly understand how and why these effects last so long," said lead author Margie Lachman, a psychologist. She suggested that higher education may spur lifelong interest in cognitive endeavors, while those with less education may not engage as frequently in mental exercises that help keep the memory agile.

But education early in adulthood does not appear to be the only route to maintain your memory. The study found that intellectual activities undertaken regularly made a difference. "Among individuals with low education, those who engaged in reading, writing, attending lectures, doing word games or puzzles once or week or more had memory scores similar to people with more education," said Lachman.

The study, called Midlife in the United States, assessed 3,343 men and women between the ages of 32 and 84 with a mean age of 56 years. Almost 40 percent of the participants had at least a 4-year college degree. The researchers evaluated how the participants performed in two cognitive areas, and executive function—brain processes involved in planning, abstract thinking and cognitive flexibility. Participants were given a battery of tests, including tests of verbal fluency, word recall, and backward counting.

As expected those with higher education said they engaged in cognitive activities more often and also did better on the memory tests, but some with lower also did well, explained Lachman.

"The findings are promising because they suggest there may be ways to level the playing field for those with lower educational achievement, and protect those at greatest risk for declines," said Lachman. "Although we can not rule out the possibility that those who have better memories are the ones who take on more activities, the evidence is consistent with cognitive plasticity, and suggests some degree of personal control over cognitive functioning in adulthood by adopting an intellectually active lifestyle."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Scientific guidelines for using cannabis to treat stress, anxiety and depression

April 19, 2018
In a first-of-a-kind study, Washington State University scientists examined how peoples' self-reported levels of stress, anxiety and depression were affected by smoking different strains and quantities of cannabis at home.

Neuroscientists use magnetic stimulation to amplify PTSD therapy

April 19, 2018
Researchers from The University of Texas at Dallas have found that a standard therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more effective when paired with transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain.

Research reveals stronger people have healthier brains

April 19, 2018
A study of nearly half a million people has revealed that muscular strength, measured by handgrip, is an indication of how healthy our brains are.

Overcoming bias about music takes work

April 18, 2018
Expectations and biases play a large role in our experiences. This has been demonstrated in studies involving art, wine and even soda. In 2007, Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed musician, illustrated the role context ...

Study suggests we can recognize speakers only from how faces move when talking

April 18, 2018
Results of a new study by cognitive psychologist and speech scientist Alexandra Jesse and her linguistics undergraduate student Michael Bartoli at the University of Massachusetts Amherst should help to settle a long-standing ...

Scientists disconfirm belief that humans' physiological reaction to emotions are uniform

April 18, 2018
How do you feel when you're angry? Tense? Jittery? Exhausted? Is it the same every time? Is it identical to how your best friend, co-worker, or barista feel when they experience anger? In all likelihood the answer is no, ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

frajo
1 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2010
To put it simply: use it or lose it.

and backward counting
Really?
resinoth
not rated yet Jan 13, 2010
Social Science needs to be merged with something 'hard'er in this case, that is, these researchers should find out what about formal, secondary education is useful, because so much of it does not improve recall, plasticity, etc.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.