Education rejuvenates the brain in old age by up to 20 years

Education rejuvenates the brain in old age by up to 20 years

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Mentally fit in old age: Education matters

Most children learn many things like walking, speaking, or doing math at a relatively similar time. However, things look very different in old age: While some 70-year-olds are still able to achieve cognitive peak performance, other peers already have difficulty remembering the address. A research team has now shown that the level of education plays a crucial role in how our brains perform in old age.

How do we stay mentally fit for a long time in old age? Researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Work Research at TU Dortmund investigated this question. In a study, the team showed that a person's education is strongly related to cognitive performance in old age. The performance of the brains of older educated people corresponded to the average performance of people up to 20 years younger. The results were recently presented in the specialist journal "NeuroImage".

Three generations in cognitive competition

Those who want to stay mentally fit for a long time should educate themselves, the research team led by Dr. Patrick Gajewski before. The researchers examined the cognitive performance of a total of 246 people from three age groups. The participants in the first group were between 19 and 33 years old, those in the second group 40 to 53 years and those in the third group 65 to 88 years old.

Increasing level of difficulty

The researchers used the so-called Stroop test to determine performance. The participants had to solve three tasks with increasing difficulty. During the tests, their brain waves were recorded using electroencephalography (EEG).

The tasks

In the first task, the test subjects were shown words of color, some of which were written in a different color. For example, the word "green" was shown in red. At first, the participants only had to read the word. With increasing difficulty they had to name the color in which the word was written and in the last test the two tasks were mixed together.

Averages performance decreased with age

As the research team expected, the average performance in the groups was dependent on the age group. The older the group and the more difficult the task, the worse the participants did on average. In the group with the oldest people, however, there were by far the greatest differences in performance.

The secret of mental fitness

When the researchers looked more closely at the group with the highest age, it was found that those with the highest levels of education and the highest IQs achieved significantly better results than the other participants in the group. The frequent use of a foreign language and living together with a family or a life partner were also positively linked to better cognitive performance.

Education rejuvenates the brain by up to 20 years

Those who achieved the best results in the group of older people scored as well in the test as the group of 40- to 53-year-olds on average. The average age difference between these two groups was 20 years.

The theory of cognitive reserve

The researchers see the result as confirmation of the so-called “theory of cognitive reserve”. The theory is that those who acquire a more adaptable and powerful neural network through education and new challenges in the course of their lives are protected from cognitive losses longer in old age.

Brain activity supports the results

This was also confirmed when looking at brain activity: According to the research team, the EEG values ​​for the prepared older people for preparing for action and paying attention were significantly more pronounced than for uneducated participants. In some cases, the best older people even outnumbered participants from the youngest group.

Don't avoid mental challenges

The researchers point out that some of the differences could be genetic. Nevertheless, regular brain training can improve performance. “If you want to stay mentally fit in old age, you should take care of your cognitive reserve in good time and not avoid challenges that train the brain,” says study author Patrick Gajewski.

Brain training in everyday life

The team advises everyone to do something in their head in everyday life, to remember the shopping list instead of reading it, or to drive routes in the car without a navigation system. In addition, one could learn a new musical instrument or a new language, for example, and carry out coordination training such as dancing or tai chi. “General education is also a very important factor,” emphasizes Gajewski. Like any other muscle, the brain needs training to not wither. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Leibniz Institute for Work Research: Fit in old age: It depends on the cognitive reserve (accessed: December 16, 2019),
  • Gajewski, P.D., Falkenstein, M., Thönes, S., Wascher, E .: Stroop task performance across the lifespan: High cognitive reserve in older age is associated with enhanced proactive and reactive interference control. NeuroImage, 2019,

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