Education and the Aging Brain

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.  Anyone who keeps learning stays young.  Henry Ford 

How important is lifelong learning for older adults?

Along with severe neurocognitive conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, people over the age of sixty or seventy increasingly tend to experience what they describe as "senior moments."  These are memory lapses that are commonly regarded as a sign of old age and an inevitable part of the aging process.  While most of these lapses tend to be relatively minor and rarely lead to anything more serious, the fear of dementia is something that everyone faces sooner or later, whether in themselves or their aging parents. 

Researchers have long been exploring different medical options to help older adults cope with aging but staying active remains the best way to preserve health for as long as possible.  Along with physical exercise however, it is also important to encourage older adults to be mentally active as well. This ties into what researchers refer to as cognitive reserve (CR), or the ability of the mind to resist damage.   Whether the damage occurs due to normal aging, physical trauma, or emotional trauma, how well we are able to function often depends on how efficiently we are able to compensate for lost brain functioning.   

One of the first research studies to identify the importance of cognitive reserve was published in the Annals of Neurology in 1988.  By studying the brains of 137 elderly persons diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, researchers found a large discrepancy between the amount of brain pathology present compared to the actual dementia symptoms the seniors displayed at the time of death.  The researchers concluded that dementia patients with a higher cognitive reserve were able to avoid many of the more severe aspects of their disease for as long as possible.  In other words, their brains were more resilient allowing them to cope with the loss of neurons that comes with advancing dementia.

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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