As you age, your brain is more easily distracted and slower to retrieve information. It has trouble shutting out mental chatter and concentrating on the task at hand. That’s why you walk into a room to find the keys—that you’ve lost again—only to forget why you were there in the first place.
But a recent study called Midlife in the United States, or Midus, revealed that one of the most important elements in retaining memory and other cognitive skills over age 50 is a college degree. “Education seems to be an elixir that can bring us a healthy body and mind throughout adulthood and even a longer life,” says Margie E. Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University and a principal investigator for Midus.
Higher education slows the brain’s aging process by up to a decade, allowing people in their 50s to test in the range of less-educated people in their 40s. The more years of school someone has, the better he or she did on calculations, memory and reasoning tests. The study also revealed that higher education is associated with a longer life and a decreased risk of dementia.
But there were other similarities among those who scored the best on cognitive tests, including regular exercise, volunteering or belonging to organizations, being socially active and remaining calm in the face of stress.
Fortunately, the study found that people who regularly challenged their brains by reading, writing, attending lectures or working word puzzles did better on intelligence tests and even made up the difference between themselves and their more highly educated counterparts. “We have shown that those with less education may be able to compensate and look more like those who have higher education by adopting some of the common practices of the highly educated,” Lachman says.
In fact, regular mental challenges will actually alter your brain’s neural circuits, even as you age, making it more responsive. The earlier you start, the larger the impact, so keep reading and make a plan to get in a cognitive workout daily.