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For healthy mental aging, brain games may fill in for schooling

Jan. 12, 2010
Courtesy Brandeis University
and World Science staff

It’s well doc­u­mented that peo­ple lack­ing col­lege de­grees are more likely to de­vel­op mem­o­ry prob­lems or even Alz­heim­er’s dis­ease later in life.

But peo­ple can sig­nif­i­cantly com­pen­sate for poorer educa­t­ion by en­gag­ing of­ten in men­tal ex­er­cises such as word games, puz­zles, read­ing, and lec­tures, a large na­t­ional study has found.

“A­mong in­di­vid­u­als with low educa­t­ion, those who en­gaged in read­ing, writ­ing, at­tend­ing lec­tures, do­ing word games or puz­zles once or week or more had mem­o­ry scores si­m­i­lar to peo­ple with more educa­t­ion,” said psy­chol­o­gist Margie Lach­man of Bran­deis Univers­ity in Wal­tham, Mass., lead au­thor of the study pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Ger­i­at­ric Psy­chi­a­try.

“The life­long ben­e­fits of high­er educa­t­ion for mem­o­ry in lat­er life are quite im­pres­sive, but we do not clearly un­der­stand how and why these ef­fects last so long,” she not­ed. It could be be­cause high­er educa­t­ion pro­motes life­long in­ter­est in cog­ni­tive en­deav­ors, she added. By con­trast, peo­ple with less educa­t­ion may en­gage less of­ten in men­tal ex­er­cises that help keep the mem­o­ry ag­ile.

The study as­sessed 3,343 men and wom­en be­tween the ages of 32 and 84 with an av­er­age age of 56. Al­most 40 per­cent of the par­ti­ci­pants had at least a four-year col­lege de­gree. Lach­man and col­leagues eval­u­at­ed how the par­ti­ci­pants per­formed in two cog­ni­tive ar­eas, ver­bal mem­o­ry and ex­ec­u­tive func­tion—brain pro­cesses in­volved in plan­ning, ab­stract think­ing and cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­ity. Par­ti­ci­pants were giv­en a bat­tery of tests, in­clud­ing tests of ver­bal flu­en­cy, word re­call, and back­ward count­ing.

“The find­ings are prom­is­ing be­cause they sug­gest there may be ways to lev­el the play­ing field for those with low­er educa­t­ional achieve­ment, and pro­tect those at great­est risk for mem­o­ry de­cli­nes,” said Lach­man. “Although we can not rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that those who have bet­ter mem­o­ries are the ones who take on more ac­ti­vi­ties, the ev­i­dence is con­sist­ent with cog­ni­tive plas­ti­city, and sug­gests some de­gree of per­son­al con­trol over cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing in adult­hood by adopt­ing an in­tel­lec­tu­ly ac­tive lifestyle.”


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It’s well documented that people lacking college degrees are more likely to develop memory problems or even Alzheimer’s disease as they grow older. But people can significantly compensate for poorer education by engaging often in mental exercises such as word games, puzzles, reading, and lectures, a large national study has found. “Among individuals with low education, those who engaged in reading, writing, attending lectures, doing word games or puzzles once or week or more had memory scores similar to people with more education,” said psychologist Margie Lachman of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. “The lifelong benefits of higher education for memory in later life are quite impressive, but we do not clearly understand how and why these effects last so long,” she noted. It could be because higher education promotes lifelong interest in cognitive endeavors, she added. By contrast, people with less education may engage less often in mental exercises that help keep the memory agile. The study assessed 3,343 men and women between the ages of 32 and 84 with an average age of 56. Almost 40 percent of the participants had at least a four-year college degree. Lachman and colleagues evaluated how the participants performed in two cognitive areas, verbal memory and executive function—brain processes involved in planning, abstract thinking and cognitive flexibility. Participants were given a battery of tests, including tests of verbal fluency, word recall, and backward counting. As expected those with higher education said they engaged in cognitive activities more often and also did better on the memory tests, but some with lower education also did well, explained Lachman. “The findings are promising because they suggest there may be ways to level the playing field for those with lower educational achievement, and protect those at greatest risk for memory declines,” said Lachman. “Although we can not rule out the possibility that those who have better memories are the ones who take on more activities, the evidence is consistent with cognitive plasticity, and suggests some degree of personal control over cognitive functioning in adulthood by adopting an intellectually active lifestyle.”