A study conducted at the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital Innsbruck showed a clear relationship between education and an increase in mental fitness in old age, even in patients with neurodegenerative disease. However, according to neuropsychologist Laura Zamarian in an APA interview, people with higher education did not perform better in all areas.
In this case, education should not only be understood as formal education, but also as a “long-term intellectual challenge”. Learning has a protective effect. The neuropsychologist explained that “it is more about the mentally stimulating profession”, “less about formal education.” Many elderly people have lived a “fun and stimulating life”.
Zamarian concluded from a study recently published in the “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease” that neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia cannot be prevented in this way, but they can be weakened or delayed.
About 1,400 patient data were examined
To investigate the relationship between education and mental fitness, she and her team retrospectively examined data sets of 1,392 patients from 2009 to 2020. All of the researchers had either a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or a mild cognitive disorder.
They all undergo a number of different tests to determine their mental fitness. In addition, their education level, measured in years of formal education, was taken into account.
In general, the more educated did better. However, there are areas in which level of education does not seem to matter in cases of severe dementia, but others seem to be better received in more educated people.
Especially with regard to semantic memory, the relationship between education and high mental fitness can be clearly defined, for example in terms of language comprehension, when internalizing numerical relationships or complex geometric shapes.
“Semantic memory helps us understand information and the environment,” Zamarian says. “As we got older we all became more forgetful and less flexible. But if the real knowledge that we learned was mechanical, then we have more mental capacity for other things,” the scientist explained.
Mental stimulation is just one of many healthy building blocks of aging. Additionally, as it is generally known from the literature, it is important to ensure a healthy diet, a balanced social life, and exercise.
“I am absolutely convinced that learning is important at any age – we should not be content with sitting in this context,” Zamarian emphasized. In addition, the consequences of clinical work can be derived from the study.
The results show that in the period leading up to treatment of patients with neurodegenerative diseases, the total value from one short examination is not sufficient, but many detailed neuropsychological examinations are required.