Ongoing Learning Increases Longevity, Researchers Say12 years ago
Posted on Feb 21, 2007, 12 p.m.
By Bill Freeman
Education may be the long-sought-after fountain of youth. After decades of studies, researchers continue to find that those who keep their minds engaged in active education live longer and stave off the ravages of aging, such as memory loss and lethargy. The New York Times recently reported that having money or good health insurance "paled in comparison" to education as a crucial factor in graceful aging.
Education may be the long-sought-after fountain of youth. After decades of studies, researchers continue to find that those who keep their minds engaged in active education live longer and stave off the ravages of aging, such as memory loss and lethargy. The New York Times recently reported that having money or good health insurance "paled in comparison" to education as a crucial factor in graceful aging. "If you were to ask me what affects health and longevity," said City University of New York researcher Michael Grossman, "I would put education at the top of my list."
Comprehensive studies on the effects of ongoing learning on aging have been conducted for decades, and more recent studies by researchers called "health economists" only seem to support the contentions of 3rd Century BC philosopher, Aristotle, who said, "Education is the best provision for old age."
In 1999, Columbia University grad student Adriana Lleras-Muney focused her dissertation on 1969 research by three health economists who found that investing in education over the long haul yielded greater anti-aging effects than good medical care. In her ground-breaking study, Lleras-Muney found that when people reached age 35, their life expectancy was increased by 18 months if they completed an extra year of education.
Lleras-Muney's findings were supported by research conducted by Princeton's Anne Case. Case reported that "each additional year of schooling for men in the U.S. is associated with an 8 percent reduction in mortality, a result consistent with those found in many European countries. In surveys run in both the developed and developing world, people with greater levels of schooling report themselves to be significantly healthier."
Education and Brain Aerobics
Only two decades ago, most physicians and researchers felt that aging and its deleterious effects on the brain were inevitable. However, these recent findings offer hope to maintaining lifelong mental health. The Alzheimer's Association now sponsors "Maintain Your Brain" workshops throughout the country, encouraging people to stay physically and intellectually active. The workshop advises people to "enroll in courses at your local adult education center, community college[,] or other community group."
What is it about learning that arrests aging? Campus-based learning increases socialization and lessens loneliness and depression common among seniors. But that's only one factor. Even the very practice of taking online classes seems to activate parts of the brain that slow aging and increase memory, emotional engagement, and intellectual curiosity.
Dr. Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Center on Aging, has found a research niche in what he calls "Mental Aerobics." Using physical fitness training language, Small encourages everyone to "cross train" their minds to keep them in peak condition. Dr. Small's popular anti-aging book, The Longevity Bible, proposes an eight-step game plan to keep your body supple and your mind in peak condition. Number one on the list: "Sharpen Your Mind. Mental aerobics cross train your brain to significantly improve memory skills and brain efficiency. If you fix your brain for longevity, your body will follow in kind."
The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in 2003 revealing that seniors over 75 years old who continued to read actively along with engaging in other physical and artistic activities had demonstrably lower rates of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
Lifelong learning combined with exercises to stimulate the mind builds what Small calls a cognitive reserve. Small says, "It's the use-it-or-lose-it theory. If you keep your brain cells active it improves their efficiency."
Education and Memory
A landmark 2005 study conducted by Toronto's Mellanie V. Springer and Cheryl Grady, Ph.D. revealed that the brains of older adults rely on the frontal cortex for memory and cognitive activity. Grady reported, "The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in a better memory performance."
Researchers have showed that the idle mind, like muscles in the body, atrophies from nonuse. With the exponential explosion of online colleges and classes, even homebound adults can keep their minds at play in the fields of learning. A 2006 Harris Poll found that of the 172 million American adults online, some 14 million were over the age of 65. Now more than ever, people of all ages can access a wide variety of educational choices to help keep their minds active and engaged.
Back in School
Seniors can get discounts for online and traditional study--even seniors who pursue a high school diploma or GED. Readily available online, education programs give those who always meant to finish high school the chance to do so--even if they've meant to finish for decades now. Even with a few years (or decades) on those wide-eyed high school grads, a non-traditional student can find a lot of satisfaction in an investment in him or herself rather than just trying to advance a career.
Adult learners can expect to find plenty of company in a classroom--online or on campus. A U.S. Department of Education report found that 84% of students in higher education are non-traditional, meaning that they haven't gone straight to college after high school. Subsequently, returning to school a little bit later in life for a diploma or beyond--an associate's, bachelor's, or other degree--has become the norm rather than the exception.