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February 15, 2023

The best way to keep the mind sharp? Attain a college degree, study suggests

People with college diplomas may be more likely to have careers that provide the mental stimulation needed to prevent cognitive decline, researchers say

Adult Health Aging
Education Cognitive Decline Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

A college degree is the strongest indicator that people still will have strong memory, judgment and concentration skills in their mid-50s, new research shows.

The best way to predict whether people's minds will remain sharp as they age is by looking at their education levels, new research suggests. 

Researchers found that a college degree most strongly influences the likelihood that people will still have strong memory, judgment and concentration skills in their mid-50s. Income level and job type also are important factors. Together, they account for almost 40% of the differences in the amount of cognitive ability lost by age 54.

Scientists have long stressed the benefits of mental stimulation. 

The brain is not static, but rather changes over time. Learning alters brain structure; social and mental stimuli trigger neuron growth. This helps protect the brain against cognitive decline and dementia. A lack of mental stimulation can cause the brain to atrophy.

People with college degrees are more likely to have careers that provide the mental stimulation needed to keep their minds sharp, the researchers theorize. 

"If you have a job that is mentally stimulating, you're lucky, because you're using your brain all the time," Hui Zheng, a sociology professor at The Ohio State University, told NBC News. "The more mental challenges in your job, the better."

The researchers expanded on the benefits of a college degree in their study:

"College education also increases one's life expectations and incentives to engage in healthier behaviors, leads to occupations with more mental stimulations, and is very consequential for one's income and higher quality of social connections who have greater formal education, all of which can contribute to a slower decline of cognitive function in later life."

Previous research has found that cognitive decline can start as early as 45 for some people, putting them at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. 

Many factors influence the risk of cognitive decline including lifestyle factors like weight, smoking status and fitness level, as well as blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Even social connections can give the brain a little boost.

For the latest study, Ohio State researchers analyzed data from 7,068 adults involved in a longterm health and retirement study conducted by the University of Michigan. The participants were 54 to 65 years old when the study began in 1996; they were followed for 20 years. The database included information on their income levels, occupations and education levels, as well as their cognitive abilities, body mass indexes, activity levels, smoking histories and any depression diagnoses. 

Researchers found that lifestyle factors like weight, smoking and exercise did not have a significant impact on the rate of cognitive decline after age 54. Previous studies have suggested that they these factors play an important role in brain health.

How to keep your mind sharp

The study did not address other ways that people can stimulate their brains. A college education isn't feasible for everyone, but there are other ways that people can keep their minds sharp as they age. 

Here are some tips curated from Healthline, Harvard Health and Apollo Health:

• Take classes on topics of interest at a local community college or community center.
• Teach yourself a new language, how to draw or how to play an instrument.
• Take dance lessons. Trying to remember choreographic moves is a great way to challenge your brain.
• Listen to music. Studies have shown that music stimulates neurons in multiple areas of the brain, encouraging higher functional connectivity. One study found that listening to familiar music can revive old memories and reduce stress levels.
• Do daily crossword puzzles or brain teasers. Or play card games that require memory and strategy skills.
• Focus on the details of your surroundings. Pay attention to what people are wearing, the color of their eyes and their facial expressions as as they talk to you.
• Expand your vocabulary. When you an encounter a new word, look it up and try to use it at least five times in a sentence the following day.

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