Education appears to protect older adults, especially women, against memory loss.
The results of a new Georgetown University study suggest that children – especially girls – who attend school for longer will have better memory abilities in old age. This 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 of age). Declarative memory refers to our ability to remember events, facts and words, such as where you put your keys or the name of that new neighbour.
Participants were shown drawings of objects, and then were tested several minutes later on their memory of these objects.
The investigators found that their memory performance became progressively worse with age. However, more years of early life education countered these losses, especially in women.
In men, the memory gains associated with each year of education were two times larger than the losses experienced during each year of ageing. 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 a high school education. So, four extra years of education make up for the memory losses from 20 years of ageing.
Professor Michael Ulman of Georgetown University explained that the results showed how learning begets learning.
“Evidence suggests that girls often have better declarative memory than boys, so education may lead to greater knowledge gains in girls,” says Prof. Ullman.
“Education may thus particularly benefit memory abilities in women, even years later in old age.
“Education has also been found to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” Prof. Ullman says. “We believe that our findings may shed light on why this occurs.”
The study’s lead author, Dr Jana Reifegerste, explained that learning new information is easier if it is related to knowledge we already have, which may explain why having more knowledge from a better education could result in having better memory abilities.
“These findings may be important, especially considering the rapidly ageing population globally,” Dr Reifegerste says.
“The results argue for further efforts to increase access to education.”
At what age did you leave school? How do your rate your memory? Do you think the two are related?
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