Education and the Aging Brain

Can lifelong education be used to hold off cognitive decline in older adults?

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. Henry Ford

How important is lifelong learning for older adults?

Along with severe neurocognitive conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, people over the age of sixty or seventy increasingly tend to experience what they describe as "senior moments." These are memory lapses that are commonly regarded as a sign of old age and an inevitable part of the aging process. While most of these lapses tend to be relatively minor and rarely lead to anything more serious, the fearof dementia is something that everyone faces sooner or later, whether in themselves or their aging parents.

Researchers have long been exploring different medical options to help older adults cope with aging but staying active remains the best way to preserve health for as long as possible. Along with physical exercise however, it is also important to encourage older adults to be mentally active as well. This ties into what researchers refer to as cognitive reserve (CR), or the ability of the mind to resist damage. Whether the damage occurs due to normal aging, physical trauma, or emotional trauma, how well we are able to function often depends on how efficiently we are able to compensate for lost brainfunctioning.

One of the first research studies to identify the importance of cognitive reserve was published in the Annals of Neurology in 1988. By studying the brains of 137 elderly persons diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, researchers found a large discrepancy between the amount of brain pathology present compared to the actual dementia symptoms the seniors displayed at the time of death. The researchers concluded that dementia patients with a higher cognitive reserve were able to avoid many of the more severe aspects of their disease for as long as possible. In other words, their brains were more resilient allowing them to cope with the loss of neurons that comes with advancing dementia.

Although there is a strong genetic component to cognitive reserve, research has shown that lifestyle factors can also boost the brain's natural resilience. This includes being exposed to an enriched environment with many opportunities for physical, mental, and social stimulation.

There are numerous anecdotes about famous people staying active and productive into extreme old age, largely because of the mental and physical challenges they faced on a routine basis. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book at the age of 64 and continued writing for the rest of her life. Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence and continued to be an elder statesman of the new United States until his death at the age of 85. Peter Mark Roget first published his classic Thesaurus when he was 73 and continued editing later editions until his death at age 90.

Even a good physical exercise routine can help older adults stay mentally active given the challenges involved with aging. But what about something as basic as education?

While there has long been a tendency to regard higher education as being something reserved for young people, more seniors than ever are returning to school to continue their education for vocational upgrading or simple enjoyment. Universities around the world are encouraging this trend with curriculums specifically tailored to adults fifty years of age and older and even providing financial assistance for older students.

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