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Dementia

24 August 2020

Education benefits the brain over a lifetime

A study found that, on average, adults with more years of formal schooling have higher mental functioning than those with fewer years of schooling.

  • Higher levels of formal education appear to stave off ageing-related cognitive decline
  • It makes the effects of brain ageing less obvious initially
  • These conclusions emphasise the importance of formal education for the well-being of individuals and societies throughout life


A new study confirms what your parents always told you: Getting an education opens the door to career opportunities and higher salaries. But it may also benefit your well-being in old age.

"The total amount of formal education that people receive is related to their average levels of cognitive [mental] functioning throughout adulthood," said researcher Elliot Tucker-Drob, from the University of Texas, Austin. "However, it is not appreciably related to their rates of ageing-related cognitive declines," he added in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers said that people with more education have a higher level of mental function in early and middle adulthood, so the effects of brain ageing are less obvious initially.

In other words, people who go further in school may have a longer period of mental impairment before going below the "functional threshold" – the point when brain decline becomes so obvious it interferes with daily activities, the study authors explained.

Importance of formal education

This finding disputes the theory that formal education in childhood and early adulthood protects against cognitive ageing.

According to study co-author Martin Lövdén, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, "Individuals vary in their rates of ageing-related cognitive declines, but these individual differences are not appreciably related to educational attainment."

For the study, the researchers looked at data from dozens of previously published studies. They found that adults with more years of formal schooling have higher mental functioning, on average, than those with fewer years of schooling.

The study emphasises the importance of formal education for the well-being of individuals and societies throughout life, including old age, Tucker-Drob noted.

"This message may be particularly relevant as governments decide if, when, and how to reopen schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. Such decisions could have consequences for many decades to come," he said.

The report was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Image credit: iStock