Doing this early in life will lead to a strong memory in old age

Back in your school days, did you ever find yourself sitting in your high school or college classroom thinking “How is any of this ever going to help me in life?”

From algebra to Shakespeare, a whole lot of the information we’re taught in school can feel superfluous when we’re young. Now, while it’s certainly up for debate if you’ll ever use the Pythagorean theorem in day-to-day life, a new study suggests that just staying committed to learning and education will pay off decades down the line.

Researchers from Georgetown University’s Medical Center have found that education early in life can protect individuals from memory loss in old age. This link between education and a strong memory is especially true among women.

To put it succinctly, according to these findings, the longer a person stays in school the stronger their memory will be once they reach old age. The team at Georgetown believes their study may have significant and meaningful implications regarding the prevention of neurological conditions linked to old age and memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“Education has also been found to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” says the study’s senior investigator, Michael Ullman, Ph.D., a professor in Georgetown’s Department of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Language Lab, in a university release. “We believe that our findings may shed light on why this occurs.”

To come to their conclusions, the study’s authors analyzed the declarative memories of 704 older adults (58-98 years old). Declarative memory refers to one’s ability to recall relevant facts, events, and words at will. You use your declarative memory each time you remember where you left your cell phone or the name of that new movie you’ve been wanting to watch.

Each participating adult was shown a series of drawn objects and then tested a few minutes later on their recollections of those drawings. As was expected, older participants around 80 or 90 years of age had considerably poorer memories than those around 60 years of age. But, participants with more years of early-life education didn’t show the same age-related memory deficiencies as their less-educated age counterparts. This was especially true among female participants.

“Simply said, learning begets learning” professor Ullman comments.

Among male participants, just one additional year of education resulted in long-term memory improvements that were two times larger than memory losses suffered due to each year of aging. For women, annual learning-related memory gains were five times larger.

So, based on these results, an 80-year-old woman with a bachelor’s degree will have the same declarative memory skills as a 60-year-old woman with only a high school education. Essentially, four more years of education protect against 20 years of age-related memory loss. Not a bad trade-off.

“Since learning new information in declarative memory is easier if it is related to knowledge we already have, more knowledge from more education should result in better memory abilities, even years later,” adds the study’s lead author, Jana Reifegerste, Ph.D., from the University of Potsdam, Germany. Reifegerste worked on this study as a postdoctoral researcher in Ullman’s lab.

“Evidence suggests that girls often have better declarative memory than boys, so education may lead to greater knowledge gains in girls,” professor Ullman notes. “Education may thus particularly benefit memory abilities in women, even years later in old age.”

All of the participants in this study came from Taiwan, so further research is needed on a more diverse population sample.

“These findings may be important, especially considering the rapidly aging population globally,” Reifegerste says. “The results argue for further efforts to increase access to education.”

So many young people feel suffocated by school while they’re stuck in the education system. Frustrated, impatient students often say they want to finish school quickly so they can “really start living.” Ironically, this study indicates that staying in school longer will lead to a much better quality of life in the future.

The full study can be found here, published in Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.