The old adage that you are never too old to learn may take on new meaning as researchers have found older adults who take college courses may increase their cognitive capacity — and possibly reduce their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
Australian researchers studied 359 participants between the ages of 50 and 79. All participants took a series of cognitive tests before completing at least a year of full-time or part-time study at the University of Tasmania.
Participants were then reassessed annually for three years following their studies. More than 90 percent of the participants displayed a significant increase in cognitive capacity, compared with 56 percent in a control group of 100 participants who didn’t take any college courses.
“The study findings are exciting because they demonstrate that it’s never too late to take action to maximize the cognitive capacity of your brain,” said lead researcher Megan Lenehan, Ph.D. “We plan to follow these participants as they age to see if college studies could help delay the onset or reduce the debilitating effects of dementia.”
Previous studies have examined how exercise, brain games, and an active social life may boost cognitive capacity and possibly stem cognitive decline associated with aging. This study is the first to examine similar positive effects from college courses taken by older adults, said Lenehan, of the University of Tasmania.
The study participants, who were screened to exclude people who had dementia, completed a baseline series of tests to measure cognitive capacity, or an individual’s ability to use brain networks efficiently in areas such as memory, information processing, decision-making, and planning.
The participants in the college studies group took a wide range of courses, including history, psychology, philosophy, and fine art. Most of the students took courses on campus, but some completed online classes.
The researchers suspect that campus study may provide greater benefits in boosting cognitive capacity because of social interaction with professors and fellow students, but the study didn’t analyze any differences between on-campus or online courses.
The participants completed the same cognitive tests each year during the four-year study, with 92 percent of the college-studies group displaying a significant increase in cognitive capacity, while the remaining eight percent generally maintained their cognitive capacity.
For the control group, 56 percent displayed a significant increase in cognitive capacity, while 44 percent had no change. The participants’ age, gender, feelings of well-being, or level of social connectedness didn’t affect the findings.
The research was published online in the journal Neuropsychology.
While prior research has shown that college study earlier in life may increase cognitive capacity, the new findings suggest the same may be true for older adults.
“It is possible that any mentally stimulating activity later in life may also enhance cognitive capacity, such as other adult-education classes or programs to increase social interaction,” Lenehan said.
The control group was significantly older than the college studies group, but there were no significant differences in baseline cognitive capacity scores, researchers noted.
Investigators also didn’t find any correlation between age and cognitive capacity scores at any point during the study. Some participants in the control group may have been doing crossword puzzles or other mentally stimulating activities that boosted their cognitive capacity, Lenehan said.
One factor to consider is that the participants who took college classes volunteered for the study so they probably had a greater interest in continuing education than the general senior population, researchers note.
Since the study was too short to reveal any long-term effects, researchers plan to follow the participants as they age to provide additional evidence of whether college studies may reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia.