Your brain doesn’t get any younger from studying
Our brain shrinks as we get older. Higher education doesn’t help us then, as researchers previously believed.
If you find it difficult to remember things as you get older, it’s partly because your brain is shrinking gradually, year by year.
Previously, researchers believed that the brain atrophies more slowly in people with higher levels of education.
The assumption has been that education itself kept the brain active, because you are learning new things.
Now a new large study shows that this is not the case.
Your brain volume shrinks just as much with age, whether you spent six years at university or left school after the primary grades.
Education doesn’t protect
An international research group has come up with this finding in a new study.
Researchers for the Lifebrain project at the University of Oslo are part of this research, and Anders Martin Fjell is one of them.
He says that it is well-established knowledge that people with higher education have better cognitive function and a somewhat lower risk of dementia in old age.
Cognitive function includes the ability to think, learn and remember.
“A lot of people have believed that this is because education helps to protect the brain from changes that occur as we age,” he says.
Fjell says that education is listed as one of the most important potentially modifying factors that can prevent dementia, according to a very influential research article in the scientific journal the Lancet.
Now researchers have followed a large number of people over several years.
The researchers used MRI scans to study the brains of more than 2 000 people between the ages of 29 and 91.
They compared the brains of individuals who had higher levels of education with the brains of those who had less education.
Participants' brains were scanned up to three times over a period of 11 years.
The study is one of the largest of its kind.
Shrinks at the same rate
The results show that the rate at which the brain shrinks throughout life was just as high in people with more education as in those with less education.
Brain researcher Fjell admits that he wasn’t that surprised by this finding.
“We theorized that this could be the case. We’ve already seen the connection between brain structure and parents' education in children. This relationship is probably established very early and is more dependent on developmental processes than aging processes.
Education and dementia
Many studies have shown that people with more education are less likely to develop dementia at the end of their lives.
Fjell believes that this must be due to conditions that have existed from early in life.
The researchers have not looked specifically at brain diseases.
“But our results indicate that education has hardly any effect on brain health in old age, beyond what people bring with them from early in life,” he says.
Slightly larger brain in the highly educated
The researchers found that people with higher education had a bigger brain to begin with. It could therefore be that they had a slightly better starting point once they get older.
Although the connection between education and brain volume was only modest, it was definitely present, according to Fjell.
He believes one explanation for this connection could be shared genetics.
“It’s been shown that the same genes are to some extent associated with higher education and larger brain volumes,” he says.
The genes and the environment may interact in creating these connections, the researcher says.
“Parents transfer their genes for education and brain volume to their children. They can also create an environment that raises the probability that the children will pursue higher education.”
Aging doesn’t start at 60
Fjell believes that to understand what happens in old age, researchers are completely dependent on understanding what happens early in life.
“Aging doesn’t start when we turn 60. We need to understand the interactions between genes and the environment that have a lifelong effect on the brain and cognition,” Fjell says.
Researchers are now looking at a number of other factors – both genetic and environmental – that affect how quickly our brains shrink as we get older.
“A consistent pattern in what we see is that early factors seem to play an important role throughout life.”
Cerebral cortex and hippocampus
Lars Nyberg is a professor at Umeå University in Sweden and has led the study.
The cerebral cortex and hippocampus are especially important for our memory, and are what shrink over the years, he says in a feature on Swedish Radio (in Swedish).
He says that large individual differences exist in how fast our brains age as we get older.
Stress and high blood pressure
Nyberg says in a press release from Umeå University that their results should not be interpreted as meaning that pursuing education is a waste.
On the contrary, he believes getting a good education is linked to many other positive outcomes in life.
But the number of years spent in classrooms can be deleted from the list of what affects brain shrinkage.
Now researchers can concentrate on other factors that they think influence brain health.
These include high blood pressure, stress, hearing, physical inactivity, loneliness and social isolation, Nyberg states in the interview.
Brains of polar researchers shrank
German researchers proved that social isolation impacts the brain when they studied participants in a polar expedition.
They studied the brains of nine people who had previously worked at a research station in Antarctica.
During the 14 months they lived there, the study showed that an area in their hippocampus had shrunk by an average of 7 percent. This is an area that is important for remembering things, memories and spatial orientation.
The nine participants had almost no contact with anyone else for over a year. They lived under the same roof and saw the same surroundings every day.
Lars Nyberg et.al.: Educational attainment does not influence brain aging, PNAS, 2021.