Your brain is shrinking

Bad news about your brain: A college degree can do wonders for your career, but it won’t help prevent your brain from shrinking with age.

Good news: You can fight the brain’s aging process. A study involved 2,000 European adults ranging from 26 to 91. The researchers used MRI scans to examine brain tissue volume to find out if there is a correlation between higher education and a healthier brain during old age, along with seeing how genetic and environmental lifelong factors change the brain over time.

What the study found

The findings, in Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences, “suggest that education does not seem to have any causal protective impact in how the brain changes with age,”*

Researchers found an insufficient amount of evidence, disproving that there is a connection between higher education and greater brain tissue volume size after examining the cortex and the hippocampus, two areas that often reduce in size as people age.

But for many neuroscientists, there is still a widely held belief that higher degrees can contribute to a healthier brain (even if it does shrink). A degree could help form a “cognitive reserve,” meaning you can retain more mental activity as you age, and help you weather the effects of aging, but this will not outright prevent dementia.

More Good News: Dementia is on the decline

In the past, many researchers suggested that higher education can fight against our aging brains. Over the years, as higher education rates have been rising, dementia rates have been on the decline, but the connection between higher education and a stronger brain may not be the reason. 

Younger individuals perform better on the cognitive test as well, studies show, but it is still a mystery what causes this underlying increase in performance.

Dementia rates could be falling—almost 15% every decade—due to healthier lifestyles and better cardiovascular health. The decline of smoking cigarettes is a big factor in this.

“We know that recent decades have seen a radical decline in smoking rates for men. While many people may have been persuaded to stop smoking due to an increased risk of cancer or heart disease, it is also a key risk factor for dementia.”

What you can do to fight dementia

Dementia is hard to prevent, but for those who have dementia caused by a stroke, living a healthier lifestyle—and therefore doing their part to prevent heart disease or another stroke—is the best course of action. Eating healthy, getting plenty of exercise, and not smoking all contribute to a healthier and happier life. 

While dementia is still a mysterious beast, it is reassuring to know that living a healthier lifestyle is proven to help in fighting against dementia. So, rather than hitting those books, it might be time to go hit theto go hit the walking trail.

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* Anders Fjell, a professor at the University of Oslo in Norway.