Academic education can positively affect brain aging

A good education is an excellent way to successfully enter professional life and develop your personality. But can education also have a positive effect on our brain in old age? A team of researchers from the university’s “Dynamics of Healthy Aging” research team headed by Lutz Jäncke, Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Zurich, has now investigated this question in a long-term study.

The researchers accompanied more than 200 seniors for over seven years. The study participants are not affected by dementia, have an average to above-average intelligence and lead a very active social life. They were examined at regular intervals both neuroanatomically and neuropsychologically using magnetic resonance imaging. Using complex statistical analyzes, the researchers were able to show that academic training has a positive effect on age-related brain degeneration.

White spots and black holes

In her doctoral thesis, first author Isabel Hotz used, among other things, innovative automatic methods to investigate so-called gaps and hyperintensities in white matter. These degenerative processes showed up as “black holes” and “white spots” on the digital images. The reasons for this are not yet known and may be related to small, unnoticed cerebral infarctions, reduced blood flow or the loss of nerve tracts or neurons. This can affect a person’s cognitive performance, especially if the degeneration affects key areas of the brain.

The results showed that senior citizens with an academic background had a significantly lower increase in these typical signs of brain degeneration over the course of seven years.

In addition, scientists processed information faster and more precisely – for example when comparing letters, numbers or patterns. The decline in their mental processing power was less overall.

Isabel Hotz.

Tap into reserves

The results complement the initial findings of other research groups who have found that education has a positive influence on brain aging. Previous studies also suggest that the speed of mental processing depends on the integrity of neural networks in the brain. When these networks are affected, the mental processing speed decreases.

Even if no causal connection between education and reduced natural brain degeneration has been found so far, at least the following appears likely.

We suspect that a high level of education leads to an increase in neural and cognitive networks in the course of life, which build up reserves, so to speak. As you get older, your brain is better able to compensate for any impairments that may arise.

Neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke

It is also possible that brains that are active into old age are less susceptible to degeneration processes, adds the neuropsychologist, but this would have to be verified in the further course of the ongoing long-term study.

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Hotz, I., Deschwanden P., Merillat S., Liem F., Kollias S., Jäncke L. (2021). Associations of subclinical cerebral vascular disease and processing speed in non-demented subjects: a 7-year study. NeuroImage: Clinical, 32, 102884. DOI: 10.1016 / j.nicl.2021.102884

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