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More Formal Education May Delay Initial Signs of Cognitive Decline

Staying in school for a longer period of time has been linked to better cognitive function and a reduced risk for dementia. Because of this, some experts have proposed that prolonging education in childhood through early adulthood may protect against overall cognitive aging.

Now a new study finds that people who have completed more extensive formal education do exhibit, on average, a higher level of cognitive function in early and middle adulthood. And because of this, the initial effects of cognitive aging are less obvious, and the most severe impairments tend to manifest later than they otherwise would have.

However, the study shows that more schooling does not appear to lessen the overall rate of aging-related cognitive decline.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI).

“The total amount of formal education that people receive is related to their average levels of cognitive functioning throughout adulthood,” said Dr. Elliot M. Tucker-Drob, a researcher with the University of Texas at Austin, and coauthor on the paper. “However, it is not appreciably related to their rates of aging-related cognitive declines.”

This conclusion refutes the longstanding hypothesis that formal education in childhood through early adulthood meaningfully protects against cognitive aging. Rather, the researchers conclude that individuals who have gone further in school tend to decline from a higher peak level of cognitive function.

They therefore can experience a longer period of cognitive impairment before dropping below what the authors refer to as a “functional threshold,” the point where cognitive decline becomes so obvious that it interferes with daily activities.

“Individuals vary in their rates of aging-related cognitive declines, but these individual differences are not appreciably related to educational attainment,” noted lead author Dr. Martin Lövdén, formerly with the Karolinska Institute and Stockholm University in Sweden and now with the University of Gothenburg.

For the study, the research team looked at data from dozens of previous meta-analyses and group studies conducted over the past two decades. The new PSPI report evaluates the conclusions from these past studies to better understand how educational attainment affects both the levels of and changes in cognitive function in aging and dementia.

While some uncertainties remain after their analysis, the authors note, a broader picture of how education relates to cognitive aging is emerging quite clearly. Throughout adulthood, cognitive function in individuals with more years of schooling is, on average, higher than cognitive function in those with fewer years of schooling.

The new findings emphasize the importance of formal education for cognitive development over the course of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. According to the researchers, childhood education has important implications for the well-being of individuals and societies not just during the years of employment, but throughout a person’s entire life, including old age.

“This message may be particularly relevant as governments decide if, when, and how to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such decisions could have consequences for many decades to come,” said Tucker-Drob.

The research team concludes that improving the conditions that shape development during the first decades of life carries great potential for improving cognitive ability in early adulthood and for reducing public-health burdens related to cognitive aging and dementia.

Source: Association for Psychological Science


More Formal Education May Delay Initial Signs of Cognitive Decline

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). More Formal Education May Delay Initial Signs of Cognitive Decline. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Aug 2020 (Originally: 11 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Aug 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.