Learning may help our brains age better

The benefits of learning are numerous: acquiring new skills, growing our confidence, and opening up new opportunities in our working or personal lives. A new piece of research suggests that academic learning may even help to reduce the degenerative effects of ageing.

A team of researchers under the University Research Priority Program “Dynamics of Healthy Aging” led by Lutz Jäncke, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Zurich, has now explored this question in a long-term study. Isabel Hotz and her fellow researchers worked with more than 200 senior citizens for over seven years. Participants in the study had average to above-average intelligence, led highly active social lives, and were not affected by dementia. They were examined neuroanatomically as well as neuropsychologically using magnetic resonance imaging at regular intervals. Based on complex statistical analyses, the researchers were able to show that academic education had a positive effect on age-related brain degeneration.

White spots and black holes

The study used novel automatic methods among others to study so-called lacunes and white matter hyperintensities. 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 have to do with small, unnoticed cerebral infarcts, reduced blood flow or loss of nerve pathways or neurons. This can limit a person’s cognitive performance, in particular when degeneration affects key regions of the brain. The findings revealed that over the course of the research, those participants with an academic background showed a significantly lower increase in the typical signs of brain degeneration. “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,” says Hotz.

The findings add to other research which has found that education has a positive effect on brain ageing. Previous studies also suggest that mental processing speed depends on the integrity of neural networks in the brain. If these networks are affected, mental processing speed decreases.

Even though no causal link between education and reduced natural brain degeneration has so far been found, the following at least seems likely: “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,” says neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke. It is also possible that brains that are active well into old age are less susceptible to degeneration processes, adds the neuropsychologist, though this would have to be verified in the further course of the ongoing long-term study.

Literature and Links

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

University of Zurich: press release December 2021

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