Lifelong learning has a positive impact on dementia

A study conducted at the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital Innsbruck showed a clear relationship between education and an increase in mental fitness in old age, even in patients with neurodegenerative disease. However, according to neuropsychologist Laura Zamarian, highly educated people did not perform better in all areas.

In this case, education must not only be understood as formal education, but also as a “long-term intellectual challenge”. Learning has a protective effect. The neuropsychologist explained that “it is more about the mentally stimulating profession, not formal education.” Many seniors were living “enjoyable and stimulating lives”. Zamarian concluded from the study recently published in the “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease” that neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia cannot be prevented in this way, but can be weakened or delayed.

Keep your mental fitness

To explore the relationship between education and mental fitness, she and her team examined retrospective data sets of 1,392 patients from 2009 to 2020. All of the researchers had either a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or a mild cognitive disorder. They have all undergone a number of different tests to determine their mental fitness. In addition, their education level was taken into account.

Zamarian summed up: “The more educated people did better overall. However, there are areas where the level of education does not appear to be significant in cases of severe dementia, but others appear to be better in the higher level educated people.” Especially with regard to semantic memory, the relationship between education and high mental fitness can be clearly defined, for example in terms of language comprehension, when internalizing numerical relationships or complex geometric shapes. “Semantic memory helps us understand information and the environment,” Zamarian says.

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The scientist explained, “As we age, we all become more forgetful and less flexible. But if the factual knowledge we learned is automatic, then we have more mental capacity for other things.” Mental stimulation is just one of the many building blocks of healthy aging. In addition, it is important – generally from the literature – to pay attention to a healthy diet, a balanced social life and exercise.

“I am convinced that learning is important at any age – we should not just sit in this context,” Zamarian emphasized. In addition, the consequences of clinical action can be derived from the study. The results show that when treating patients with neurodegenerative diseases, the total value from one short examination is not sufficient, but many detailed neuropsychological examinations are required.

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