The impact of education and lifelong learning on brain and mental health

 In Articles

By Kathrin Müsch

Education is a path into a better future. It is also a path to better health including brain and mental health.

Besides being rewarding by itself, better education brings a lot of benefits, not only to the individual but also to society in general. Education and a better skill set usually result in higher earnings, contribute to economic growths, and drive innovation. The good news is that over the last couple of decades, girls and boys spent more years at school in most countries worldwide (find a tool for visualizing the data here).

The Effect of Education on Brain & Mental Health

Education has positive outcomes on health and well-being. It also leads to better public health and health equity, including a positive effect on individuals’ health and preventive behaviors. The positive impact of education on health is much stronger than for example health care expenses, and education is one of the biggest predictors of life expectancy.

The link between education and health is particularly crucial when it comes to brain diseases. In fact, education is one of the biggest modifiable factors in enjoying better mental health.

There is increasing evidence that education acts as a protective factor against developing depression and various forms of dementia.

In the light of the gender gap in education (women traditionally received less education than men), and of the fact that more women than men suffer from depression and dementia, improving opportunities for learning will provide great benefits to society to limit the burden of these diseases and reduce health care costs. Thus, the reduction of this gender gap in education, as observed in many industrialized countries, is promising for future older generations.

Dementia as a Case Study

A recent study in JAMA Neurology reported that older adults with higher scores on a construct called “cognitive reserve” had a reduced risk of developing dementia. Cognitive reserve in this study was a combined measure of education level, continuous mental engagement throughout life, and social activities in late life.

The concept of cognitive reserve refers to the ability of the brain to tolerate or compensate for pathological changes in the brain without developing clinical symptoms. Engaging in mental, physical or social activities contributes to making our brains more resilient. The concept originated in the late 80’s, when researchers described people without any symptoms of dementia during their lifetime even though their brains revealed clear signs of Alzheimer’s Disease when they performed a post-mortem autopsy.

For the JAMA Neurology study, researchers measured the cognitive reserve of 1,602 participants of the Rush University Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing prospective cohort study. The participants (mean age 79.6, 1216 women) were dementia-free at enrollment and were divided into three groups based on their cognitive reserve score (lowest, middle, highest). They were followed up annually for a mean of 6 years.

After adjusting for a number of confounding factors (including sex and physical activity), the risk of developing dementia was reduced by 23% in people with middle cognitive reserve and by 39% in those with highest cognitive reserve relative to those with the lowest scores in cognitive reserve.

Importantly, the dementia risk was still less for those people even if their brains showed Alzheimer’s or vascular pathology. These results suggest that high levels of cognitive reserve could “compensate for dementia pathology through other pathways rather than avoiding pathology directly”.

One important aspect that this study raises is lifelong mental engagement. Education and lifelong engagement in mental activities seem to be one of the biggest modifiable factors in reducing the risk of developing depression and dementia.

The results of these studies also suggest that if dementia cannot be prevented, its onset may be postponed, and that “development of dementia is a lifelong process that begins decades before the onset of the disease”, even in people with a genetic predisposition.

Even though the effect of education and mentally challenging activities throughout life were found to be dose-dependent (the more activities, the higher the reduced risk), there is also evidence that it is never too late to start, since stimulating mental, physical and social activities in late life (75 years and older) are also associated with reduced dementia risk. Mental stimulating activities include – but are not limited to – reading books, writing, doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, playing board games or playing musical instruments.

The Women’s Brain Project is dedicated to increasing awareness about sex and gender differences in brain and mental health. As today is World Teacher Day, we thought it would be particularly relevant to raise awareness about the positive impact of lifelong learning on brain health, as it may change the trajectory of disease, in particular for women.


What kind of lifelong learning activities do you engage in to keep your brain healthier?

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