There are certain habits, like exercising and eating nutritious foods, that are synonymous with healthy aging. A new, large-scale study highlights another method that middle-aged and older adults should also add to the mix: Learning.
Research published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience suggests that people who took part in adult education classes had a 19% lower risk of developing dementia within five years compared to folks who did not take classes. Participants self-reported attending adult education classes, but the frequency or type of class was not included.
The study consisted of data from 282,421 people ages 40 to 69 in the U.K. Biobank who enrolled between 2006 and 2010. Participants were followed for an average of seven years. Approximately 1.1% of participants developed dementia during the study period.
Researchers found that those who took part in adult education classes had a “greater subsequent retention of fluid intelligence score,” the study stated, which essentially means the ability to recall new information that changes over time, explained Dr. Zaldy Tan, the director of the Jona Goldrich Center for Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders at Cedars-Sinai in California. Answers to questions like, “What did you have for breakfast?” or “What are you doing this weekend?” are examples of fluid intelligence, Tan said.
In contrast, crystallized intelligence is information that will be the same today and 20 years from now — like the answers to “Where did you go to college?” or “Where are you from?” Tan noted.
“Fluid intelligence is more reliant on short-term memory … so, a lot of my patients ― even those who have mild dementia, or mild cognitive impairment ― their crystallized intelligence is great,” Tan said.
As mentioned, participants’ fluid intelligence benefitted from adult education classes, and so did their non-verbal reasoning performance (the ability to use logic and visual reasoning to come to an answer). Their reaction time and visuospatial memory (like the ability to understand distances and the size of items in relation to others) remained the same. These are all key factors in healthy cognition. Some of the earliest warning signs of dementia include difficulty finding the right word and trouble constructing sentences.
Study participants were given a number of tests to measure these categories. The tests were given on the enrollment visit and the third assessment visit, which took place four to eight years apart, depending on the person.
Tan said the results are refreshing but not surprising. “The reason is, we know that as we get older, our opportunities for learning new things tend to decrease,” he explained.
For example, you may be retired, so you might not have as many opportunities to learn new things as you did at work. Or your kids may be living outside of your home, so you don’t have the mental stimulation of raising a family.
“So, those things are all built into our day-to-day lives to challenge us … but as we transition into later life, late middle age and beyond, we have to be more deliberate with making sure that we have enough intellectual stimulation and that we keep our minds healthy,” Tan said.
Similar to keeping our hearts and muscles healthy by exercising, learning something new is a way that we exercise our minds, Tan said.
Additionally, when it comes to attending a class, you have to get yourself there (this study was done pre-pandemic, so virtual classes were less prevalent), which requires mental stimulation and learning as well. You have to think about how you’ll get to the class, plan your route and be ready to meet new people once you’re there. It’s all new information your brain has to be ready to take in.
“It’s not just the topic of what is being discussed in the adult education class, but the whole process is cognitively stimulating,” Tan said.
For this reason, in-person classes are preferable, he noted.
“Whenever we learn new things, we know that we form new connections between brain cells,” Tan continued. “Whenever you make these connections, you increase what we call brain plasticity. Plasticity is [the] ability of our minds and our brains to adapt to change. And that is the theory why people, for example, who have higher degrees of formal education have less risk of developing dementia later in life.”
Additionally, Tan said you should think of exercising your brain as cross-training. While doing things like adult education classes is important, those alone aren’t enough. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what else you can do to keep your brain healthy, which could include getting enough sleep, controlling your blood pressure, working out and not smoking, according to Tan.
“The more we can cross-train our cognitive abilities, the better off we are in the final tally,” Tan said.
While this is promising and exciting research, study authors said randomized controlled trials need to be conducted to determine if there’s a direct link between the two.
Tan echoed this, saying: “Association is not causation. We cannot say that just attending adult education classes is going to prevent you from developing dementia, but it certainly helps, it looks like.”