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The positive effect on the mind of soaking up all that knowledge can extend into old age, scientists say. In a study that looked at how the brains of academics work, researchers found that a good education can halt some degenerating effects.
A team of researchers at the University of Zurich followed more than 200 elderly people, who had average to above-average intelligence scores and had led highly active social lives for a period of seven years.
In this time they had their nervous systems examined as well as neuropsychology tests using MRIs.
Based on the results, the team analysed the data and were able to show that an academic education had a positive effect on age-related brain degeneration.
In her PhD thesis Isabel Hotz ‑ one of the study authors ‑ used various methods to look at the degenerative processes in the brain which showed up in MRI scans.
These were revealed as black holes and white spots on the digital images.
Although the reasons for these findings are unknown, it is thought that they may have shown up because of a reduced blood flow or even a loss of nerve pathways leading to a specific region of the brain.
These processes can limit a person’s ability to think, particularly when degeneration affects the key thought processing regions of the brain.
The findings revealed to Ms Hotz that over the course of the seven-year period, the older people with an academic background showed a significantly lower increase in the tell-tale signs of brain degeneration.
She said: “In addition, academics also processed information faster and more accurately. For example, when matching up letters, numbers or patterns in puzzles.
“The decline in their mental processing performance was lower overall.”
These findings add to a mix of previous research that has been conducted on the relationship between education and brain aging.
The earlier studies have suggested that mental processing speed depends on the strength of neural networks throughout the brain.
If these vital networks are affected, then it has been shown that the mental processing speed decreases.
Lutz Jancke, Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Zurich, commenting on the study, said: “We suspect that a high level of education leads to an increase in neural and cognitive networks over the course of people’s lives and that they build up reserves, so to speak.”
Professor Jancke added: “In old age, their brains are then better able to compensate any impairments that occur.
“It is also possible that brains that are active well into old age are less susceptible to degeneration processes.”
However this would have to be verified in the course of the long-term study, he added.
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