Why A College Degree Does NOT Slow Brain Aging

The idea currently being promulgated by aging researchers that a college degree itself increases mental capacities later in life by at least a decade is just plain WRONG.

A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond (New York Times, January 2012) summarizes some of the latest aging research and states, “For those in midlife and beyond, a college degree appears to slow the brain’s aging process by up to a decade, adding a new twist to the cost-benefit analysis of higher education — for young students as well as those thinking about returning to school.

Having been a teacher for a decade in America and two decades in Africa, I’d say something else is at work here, skewing the statistics. This research has simply put the cart before the horse.

It’s no doubt true that exercising mental capacities maintains a better level of brain functioning, it is NOT the college degree which is creating the improvement.   It is that higher-functioning people (and more wealthy people) tend to be the ones who complete their college degrees!

Having lived in Africa for two decades as a teacher, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe many people who were illiterate, many who left their education at all sorts of different levels, and many college graduates.

What happens is that those who have learning disabilities, listening and/or attention problems, intelligence deficits, or other problems which prevent them being successful in learning tend to drop out all along the educational path.  It is the higher-functioning people who go on to complete their education.  If a researcher comes along later and says, “These people are higher-functioning later in life because they earned a college degree,” the whole premise is wrong.  Those people are higher-functioning because they always were higher-functioning.

In America, we are now trying to push everyone into college.  Having a college degree will not give everyone the benefit of an extra decade of a higher-functioning brain.  I know some people in America who struggled mightily to get through college in six years, who in spite of their degree, don’t like to read (because they had learning disabilities to start out with).  It is not a person’s college degree which keeps their brain active.  It is their PERSONALITY.

 

Furthermore, I have known certain people who never learned how to read or write who enjoy conversing on current events; who follow active hobbies, crafts, dancing, or sports; who read, write, or blog; who take a course or who teach something to others; or who regularly participate in social activities or weekly luncheon clubs.  All of these things can keep one’s brain active.

Study, or a college degree is just one type of activity.  The aging researchers quoted in the article linked to above are just being far too narrow in their focus.  College-educated people have already self-selected themselves into a group which has high cognitive functioning.

It’s not the college degree that keeps one’s brain from atrophying.  It’s the personality, the interest, the spark for life.

–Lynne Diligent

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