Investing in education during youth and early adulthood broadens employment options and gives increasingly higher wages. It also has specific health and lifespan benefits.
However, a new study published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI) demonstrates that, while a more extensive formal education delays the more evident indicators of age-related cognitive deficiencies, it does not slow the rate of aging-related cognitive decreases. Instead, those who have completed more schooling have a greater level of cognitive function in early and middle adult maturity. Thus the early impacts of cognitive aging are less visible, and the most severe deficits appear later than they would otherwise.
“The total quantity of formal schooling that people acquire is associated with their typical levels of cognitive functioning throughout adulthood,” said Elliot M. Tucker-Drob, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and article coauthor. “However, it is not statistically significant about their rates of aging-related cognitive impairment.”
This finding contradicts the long-held belief that formal education from childhood through early adulthood protects against cognitive aging. Instead, the authors suggest that those who have completed more education tend to decrease from a greater peak level of mental performance. As a result, they can have a longer time of cognitive impairment before falling below what the authors refer to as a “functional threshold,” or the point at which cognitive loss becomes noticeable enough to interfere with daily tasks.
“Individuals differ in their rates of aging-related cognitive decline, but these individual differences are not appreciably related to educational attainment,” says lead author Martin Lövdén, who previously worked at the Karolinska Institute and Stockholm University in Sweden and is now at the University of Gothenburg.
The researchers evaluated data from dozens of previous meta-analyses and cohort studies completed over the last two decades for their analysis. The new PSPI study assesses the findings of earlier studies to better understand how educational attainment influences both the levels and changes in cognitive function in aging and dementia.
Although the authors emphasize that some doubts remain following their analysis, a broader picture of how schooling links to cognitive ageing is developing rather clearly. Throughout adulthood, those with more years of schooling have stronger cognitive performance on average than those with less years of schooling.
This review emphasises the significance of formal education for cognitive development during childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Childhood education, according to the experts, has significant implications for the well-being of individuals and society not just during working years, but also throughout life, including old age. “This message may be especially important as governments decide whether, when, and how to reopen schools during the COVID-19 outbreak. Such decisions could have far-reaching effects for decades to come “Tucker-Drob stated.
The authors conclude that addressing the conditions that determine development in the first decades of life has a high promise for increasing cognitive ability in early adulthood and lowering public-health burdens associated with cognitive ageing and dementia.