Learning and longevity: High school quality may impact brain performance 60 years later!

NEW YORK — Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once said, “never confuse education with intelligence, you can have a PhD and still be an idiot.” While Feynman makes a compelling point, researchers from Columbia University find that a high-quality education can at least offer some very long-term cognitive benefits.

The new study, encompassing over 2,300 adults who attended high school during the early 1960s, found that individuals who attended higher quality schools displayed better cognitive functioning 60 years later. While some prior studies have found that the number of years spent in school correlates with cognition later in life, very few have examined the impact of educational quality.

“Our study establishes a link between high-quality education and better late-life cognition and suggests that increased investment in schools, especially those that serve Black children, could be a powerful strategy to improve cognitive health among older adults in the United States,” says Jennifer Manly, PhD, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study.

Going to a less successful high school could age your brain by 3 years

Led by Manly and Dominika Šeblová, PhD, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia, this project made use of data provided by Project Talent, a 1960 survey of high school students across the U.S., as well as additional data collected by the Project Talent Aging Study.

Researchers analyzed relationships between six indicators of school quality, in addition to several measures of cognitive performance, among participants nearly 60 years after leaving high school. Since high-quality schools tend to be especially beneficial for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, study authors also analyzed whether associations differed according to various other factors like geography, sex/gender, and race/ethnicity. Researchers note the survey only included sufficient data pertaining to Black and White respondents.

Ultimately, study authors found that attending a school with a higher number of teachers featuring graduate training was the most consistent predictor of better later-life cognition, particularly language fluency (for instance, coming up with words within a category). Attending a learning institution with a high number of graduate-level teachers was roughly equivalent to the difference in cognition between a 70-year-old individual and someone else one to three years older. Additional school quality indicators displayed a link to some, but not all, measures of cognitive performance.

Dementia, Alzheimer's, brain puzzle
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Both Manly and Šeblová say there are many potential reasons that could explain why attending schools with well-trained teachers may affect later-life cognition.

“Instruction provided by more experienced and knowledgeable teachers might be more intellectually stimulating and provide additional neural or cognitive benefits,” Šeblová explains, “and attending higher-quality schools may also influence life trajectory, leading to university education and greater earnings, which are in turn linked to better cognition in later life.”

Racial disparities may lead to teaching disparities

While associations between school quality and late-life cognition were largely similar between white and Black students, Black participants were also more likely to have attended lower quality schools.

“Racial equity in school quality has never been achieved in the United States and school racial segregation has grown more extreme in recent decades, so this issue is still a substantial problem,” Prof. Manly notes in a university release.

For example, a survey conducted in 2016 found that U.S schools attended by non-White students had twice as many inexperienced teachers in comparison to schools attended by mostly White students.

“Racial inequalities in school quality may contribute to persistent disparities in late-life cognitive outcomes for decades to come,” Prof. Manly concludes.

The study is published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia Diagnosis Assessment & Disease Monitoring.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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