Study: After 70, being better-educated means worse memory-loss

Check this out: A new study found that people with high levels of education tend to have bigger declines in their “working memory” after age 70 than the less-educated.

To figure this out, a team of scientists took a whackload of data that a group called AHEAD has collected since 1923. Essentially, AHEAD gave word-memory tests to old people. They’d read 10 common nouns to the subjects, ask them how many they could remember, then ask them again five minutes later. When the scientists crunched the AHEAD data, what did they find? Above age 70, people who had high levels of education experienced much larger decreases in their ability to perform this task than people who weren’t as well educated.

This inverts the well-worn concept that education always prevents your brain from going soft. Up until now, most studies have found that people with higher levels of education stay smarter as they age: Their cognitive skills remain sharper, and they experience less dementia. But apparently this may not hold true for their working memory — their ability to temporarily store and manipulate information. This new group of scientists suspects that as the well-educated age, they’re able to use their schooling to help compensate for normal, age-related memory deficiencies — but this strategy somehow falls apart at age 70. As Dawn Alley, the lead author on the study, noted in a press release:

“Even though we find in this research that those with higher education do better on mental status tests that look for dementia-like symptoms, education does not protect against more normal, age-related declines, like those seen on memory tests,” said lead author Dawn Alley of the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted the research while a doctoral student at the USC Davis School.

I’d like to know more about how the scientists classify “high levels of education”, but unfortunately the article is behind a paywall.

Either way, it’s an interesting gloss on the current rage for “brain training” tools for the elderly — the idea that playing Sudoku, or Nintendo’s Brain Age, can help keep your brain young even as you sail off into your golden years.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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