Cognition tends to peak later if you have more degrees

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A new study suggests that higher levels of education are tied to later ages of peak cognitive functioning.

The study, which appears in the journal PLOS ONE, examined relationships between educational attainment, cognitive performance, and learning in order to quantify the cumulative effect of attending school.

age of peak cognitive performance chart
This chart shows the age at which cognitive performance peaks align with the average age of completion of educational degrees by participants in a study of education and cognition. Colored points show the median age of maximum performance while gray, dotted lines represent the age range of peak performance, and colored squares show the median age of typical graduation for each education level. (Credit: PLOS ONE via UC Berkeley)

Its findings suggest that higher levels of education may help stave off age-related cognitive decline. In addition, the team found that education didn’t have a large impact on novel learning, or learning something new at various points in time.

Conventional wisdom has long accepted that higher education is likely to boost incomes and helps prepare individuals for a workplace with often-changing skill sets. Yet fewer than 40 percent of adults in the United States are expected to graduate from college in their lifetimes, and the percentage declines for more advanced degrees.

Until now, research has been inconclusive about the cognitive impacts of higher education and whether the quantity of schooling can influence the acquisition and maintenance of cognitive skills over time.

“…schooling doesn’t merely impart knowledge—it also provides the opportunity to sharpen core cognitive skills…”

Bunge and her team say higher levels of education are strong predictors of better cognitive performance across the 15- to 60-year-old age range of their study participants, and appear to boost performance more in areas such as reasoning than in terms of processing speed.

The study’s findings are consistent with prior evidence that the brain adapts in response to challenges, a phenomenon called “experience-dependent brain plasticity.” Based on the principles of plasticity, the authors predicted improvements in cognitive skills that are repeatedly taxed in demanding, cognitively engaging coursework.

Differences in performance were small for test subjects with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with a high school diploma, and moderate for those with doctorates compared to those with only some high school education.

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The researchers note that people from lower educational backgrounds learned novel tasks nearly as well as those from higher ones.

“The fact that the cognitive tests were not similar to what is learned in school is a strength of the study: It speaks to the idea that schooling doesn’t merely impart knowledge—it also provides the opportunity to sharpen core cognitive skills,” says Bunge.

The researchers analyzed anonymized data collected from around 196,000 Lumosity subscribers in the United States, Canada, and Australia who came from a range of educational attainment and diverse backgrounds. Participants complete eight behavioral assessments of executive functioning and reasoning that are unrelated to educational curricula as part of their subscription.

The research team also looked closely at a subset of nearly 70,000 subscribers who finished Lumosity’s behavioral assessments a second time after about 100 days of additional cognitive training. Testing before and after the assessments measured cognitive performance in areas such as working memory, thinking quickly, responding flexibly to task goals, and both verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

“Given the size and wide age range of our sample, it was possible to test whether these age effects are influenced by education—and, importantly, to determine how the cognitive effects of educational attainment differ across the lifespan, as one’s experience with formal education recedes into the past and is supplanted by other life experiences,” the team writes.

Bunge says that collaborating with Lumosity was an opportunity to analyze data from a large number of participants—an anonymized dataset that would have taken a lifetime to collect in a laboratory.

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Additional researchers contributing to the paper are from the University of California, Berkeley and Lumos Lab.

Source: UC Berkeley