SENDAI, Japan — A sharp mind in old age is a goal we can all agree on, but what’s the best way to ensure you’ll still be thinking clearly well into retirement? Prior studies show that keeping the mind busy with activities like brain teasers, puzzles, or even certain video games can help protect thinking skills. Now, a new study has found for the first time ever that regularly enrolling in adult education classes may also lower the risk of both cognitive decline and dementia.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn French or never had the chance to try creative writing. Scientists at the Institute of Development, Aging, and Cancer of Tohoku University say that opting to learn a new skill, language, or hobby in middle and old age can go a long way toward protecting the brain.
“Here we show that people who take adult education classes have a lower risk of developing dementia five years later,” says Dr. Hikaru Takeuchi, the study’s first author, in a media release. “Adult education is likewise associated with better preservation of nonverbal reasoning with increasing age.”
In collaboration with study co-author Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a professor at the same institute, Dr. Takeuchi analyzed data originally gathered by the UK Biobank – an ongoing research project that has collected genetic, health, and medical information from roughly half a million British volunteers. They analyzed a total of 282,421 Biobank participants for this study specifically. All of those participants originally enrolled between 2006 and 2010 and were 40 to 69 years-old at the time of enrollment. Researchers tracked them for an average of seven years.
Then, based on each person’s genotype at 133 relevant single-locus polymorphisms (SNPs) in their DNA, the team assigned each participant an individual predictive “polygenic risk score” for dementia. These adults were also asked to report if they had ever taken any adult education classes – without providing details regarding the frequency, subject, or academic level.
The research team chose to focus on data from participants’ initial enrollment visit as well as their third follow-up assessment that took place sometime between 2014 and 2018. During those visits, participants completed a series of psychological and cognitive tests covering areas including fluid intelligence, visuospatial memory, and reaction time. In all, a total of 1.1 percent of these individuals developed dementia.
Study authors uncovered that people who were taking adult education classes at enrollment had a 19-percent lower risk of developing dementia than other participants. This remained true regardless of ethnicity. Interestingly, results remained similar even after people with a medical history of diabetes, hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, or mental illness were excluded. This suggests, researchers say, that the observed lower risk among adult students wasn’t exclusively due to participants with incipient dementia being prevented from enrolling in adult education classes by symptoms of these known co-morbidities.
People who enrolled in adult classes were better able to maintain their fluid intelligence and nonverbal reasoning performances in comparison to other study participants. However, adult education didn’t appear to affect the preservation of either visuospatial memory or reaction time.
“One possibility is that engaging in intellectual activities has positive results on the nervous system, which in turn may prevent dementia. But ours is an observational longitudinal study, so if a direct causal relationship exists between adult education and a lower risk of dementia, it could be in either direction,” Dr. Kawashima explains.
In summation, Dr. Takeuchi proposes that a randomized clinical trial be performed in the near future in order to further validate the protective cognitive effect of adult education.
“This could take the form of a controlled trial where one group of participants is encouraged to participate in an adult education class, while the other is encouraged to participate in a control intervention with equivalent social interaction, but without education,” Dr. Takeuchi concludes.
The study is published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.