The benefits of an education are generally framed in terms of the short-term future, especially when it comes to employment. Current research suggests, however, that education has a future benefit, too: staving off late-life cognitive decline.
The results of earlier research on the possible association between more years of education and lower rates of late-life cognitive decline have been inconsistent. Columbia University Medical Center’s Laura Zahodne, PhD; Yaakov Stern, PhD; and Jennifer Manly, PhD, decided to explore the relationship further.
In an article to be published in the November 2014 issue of Neuropsychology, they outlined the three goals of their study: to quantify the relationship between years of education and late-life cognitive decline, to determine whether years of education are associated with late-life cognitive decline only among individuals with relatively lower education, and to determine whether associations between education and late-life cognitive decline are independent of or driven by lifetime advantage (defined by late-life income).
The researchers analyzed data from 3,435 racially, ethnically, and educationally diverse older adults in Manhattan who had participated in a community-based, prospective longitudinal study of aging and dementia. Participants had completed neuropsychological tests of memory, language, visuospatial function, and processing speed at approximate 24-month intervals for up to 18 years. To estimate direct and indirect effects of educational attainment on rates of cognitive decline, the researchers ran the data separately for individuals with low (0–8 years) and high (9–20 years) levels of education to uncover any differences.
The data revealed a number of interesting relationships. First, more years of education were associated with higher cognitive level and slower cognitive decline in both groups—those with low and high levels of education. The association between more than nine years of education and slower cognitive decline was fully mediated by income. This suggests that more education leads to higher income, which may influence late-life cognitive health through multiple, non–mutually exclusive pathways (e.g., greater access to high-quality health care, fewer stressors, more opportunity to participate in cognitively demanding occupations and hobbies). Although additional years of education (up to eight years) were also associated with higher income, this did not explain associations between education and cognitive change in the low-education group. This suggests that early education during a sensitive period of childhood may promote aspects of development that protect against late-life cognitive decline independent of income.
This article originally appeared in a spotlight feature email from the American Psychological Association on 1 October 2014.
The paper is titled, “Different effects of education on cognitive decline in diverse elders with low versus high educational attainment.” The authors are Laura B. Zahodne, Yaakov Stern, and Jennifer J. Manly, all from Columbia University Medical Center. The article can be accessed here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/neu0000141.