Early Learning Slows Later Cognitive Decline – Psychology Today

Knowing what you value will help you build the most meaningful life possible.
Verified by Psychology Today
Posted  | Reviewed by Devon Frye
The brain, like all areas of the body, eventually begins to decline. Your strength and stamina may peak when you are in your 20s, but regular exercise can keep you in great physical condition into your 70s—but eventually, even the most physically fit individuals will find it difficult to maintain that level of physical conditioning.
Likewise, people with a healthy brain at 70 may not be quite as sharp as they were at 25, but they are pretty close—and they make up for it by having a lot more specific knowledge. Eventually, though, the brain ages, and cognitive ability declines—even for people who are not experiencing dementia.
Researchers have been interested in predicting what factors predict the degree of decline people experience as they age. There is some evidence that the higher people’s overall level of intelligence when they are younger, the longer it takes for them to experience declines in aging.
A study in the November 2022 issue of Psychological Science by a team of 10 authors headed by Federica Conte suggests that improvements in cognitive ability over the lifespan are also associated with less cognitive decline in aging.
This group analyzed data taken from a group of people in Scotland born in 1936 who were tested periodically over the course of their lives. (Frequent readers of my blogs may recognize this group as the same one I mentioned in a study of the influence of playing a musical instrument on cognitive ability.)
Participants in this study took a test of general cognitive ability at age 11 and again at age 70. In general, the scores on this test went up from age 11 to age 70, which reflects the influence of education and other learning over the lifespan. As you might expect, some people improved more than others.
About 1,000 individuals from this cohort also took another series of cognitive tests every three years from age 70 to age 82. These tests provided a way to assess decline in cognitive abilities during this time period. The researchers looked at a variety of aspects of cognitive ability including speed of processing, memory, and visuospatial ability.
Consistent with previous research, people’s highest level of cognitive ability (typically what was measured at age 70) predicted their speed of decline. People with higher levels of ability tended to decline more slowly than those with lower levels of ability.
Of interest in this study, was that—even taking into account this influence of higher levels of cognitive ability—people whose ability increased more from age 11-70 declined more slowly from age 70-82 than those whose ability increased less from 11-70. That is, people who learned a lot in their younger years showed less decline than people who did not. This study is the first to explore the relationship between learning at younger ages and cognitive decline at older ages.
Why might there be a relationship between learning and cognitive decline?
Learning—regardless of whether it involves formal education—leads people to develop many different strategies for solving problems. These strategies are practiced every time people use that knowledge.
As you age, your brain gets slower and less coordinated, and it may suffer damage from events like microstrokes. This damage accumulates and makes it harder to think effectively. That causes cognitive decline. But the more strategies you have learned to think effectively, the more likely you are to be able to find ways to solve problems even after suffering damage.
That is, learning a lot in your younger years does not protect the brain from damage, but it does protect those people from the influence of that damage for longer.
Conte, F. P., Okely, J. A., Hamilton, O. K., Corley, J., Page, D., Redmond, P., Taylor, A. M., Russ, T. C., Deary, I. J., & Cox, S. R. (2022). Cognitive Change Before Old Age (11 to 70) Predicts Cognitive Change During Old Age (70 to 82). Psychological Science, 33(11), 1803–1817. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976221100264
Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.
Get the help you need from a therapist near you–a FREE service from Psychology Today.
Psychology Today © 2023 Sussex Publishers, LLC
Knowing what you value will help you build the most meaningful life possible.



Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.