Education appears to protect older adults against memory loss

This study may have implications for memory loss in Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.


According to a new study, early-life education improves memory in old age-, especially for women. The research by the Georgetown University Medical Center, suggests that the children (especially girls) who attend school for longer tend to have better memory abilities in old age.

Scientists think that the outcomes of the study may have implications for memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

The study tested declarative memory in 704 older adults (58-98 years age). Here, declarative memory means our ability to remember events, facts, and words, such as where you put your keys or the name of that new neighbor.

During the study, participants were shown drawings of the objects. After a few minutes, they were tested on their memory of these objects.

Scientists found that their memory performance became progressively worse with aging. However, more years of early-life education countered these losses, especially in women.

In terms of men, the memory gains associated with each year of education were two times larger than the losses experienced during each year of aging. 

However, in women, the gains were five times larger. For example, the declarative memory abilities of an 80-year-old woman with a bachelor’s degree would be as good as those of a 60-year-old woman with high school education. So, four extra years of education make up for the memory losses from 20 years of aging.

Michael Ullman, Ph.D., a professor in Georgetown’s Department of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Language Lab, said, “Learning begets learning. Evidence suggests that girls often have better declarative memory than boys so that education may lead to greater knowledge gains in girls. Education may thus particularly benefit memory abilities in women, even years later in old age.”

Study’s lead author, Jana Reifegerste, Ph.D., a member of the scientific staff at the University of Potsdam, Germany said, “Since learning new information in declarative memory is easier if it is related to the knowledge we already have, more knowledge from more education should result in better memory abilities, even years later.”

“The study tested individuals in a non-Western (Taiwanese) population. Participants varied in the number of years of education, from none at all to graduate studies. Future research is needed to test whether the findings generalize to other populations.”

“These findings may be important, especially considering the rapidly aging population globally. The results argue for further efforts to increase access to education.”

The study is published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.

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