New US research has found that education appears to have a protective effect against memory loss in older adults, especially among women.
Carried out by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center, the new study looked at 704 Taiwanese adults aged 58 to 98 years of age and tested their declarative memory, which is the ability to remember events, facts and words, and other details such as where you put your keys or someone's name.
During the test, participants were shown drawings of objects and asked to recall them several minutes later. The researchers also recorded how many years of education each participant had completed, ranging from none at all to finishing their graduate studies.
The findings, published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, showed that perhaps unsurprisingly, the participants' performance on the test became worse with age.
However, the researchers found that completing more years of education appeared to be linked with better performance on the tests.
This protective effect was also particularly strong among women, with the team finding that the memory gains associated with each year of education were five times larger than the losses experienced during each year of aging among female participants, and two times larger among the male participants. According to the team, completing four extra years of education makes up for the memory losses from 20 years of aging, so for example, the declarative memory abilities of an 80-year-old woman with a bachelor's degree would be around the same as those of a 60-year-old woman with a high school education.
As the researchers only looked at Taiwanese participants they note that further research is needed to see whether the findings also relate to other populations, however, they say that the study suggests that attending school for longer when young may have an effect on the risk of memory loss in Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
"Since learning new information in declarative memory is easier if it is related to knowledge we already have, more knowledge from more education should result in better memory abilities, even years later," adds the study's lead author, Jana Reifegerste, PhD.
"Simply said, learning begets learning," added the study's senior investigator, Michael Ullman, PhD. "Evidence suggests that girls often have better declarative memory than boys, so education may lead to greater knowledge gains in girls. Education may thus particularly benefit memory abilities in women, even years later in old age."