MONDAY, March 14, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- College educations don't just boost careers, they may also help keep brains sharp later in life, as research has shown.
Now, a new study gives clues as to how higher education buffers people from age-related declines in intellect.
Researchers from the University of Toronto found that added years of education are associated with increased activity in the brain's frontal lobes.
The study suggests the frontal cortex is engaged by older adults -- especially those who are highly educated -- as an alternative network that may aid memory and other intellectual tasks as they age.
The research appears in the March issue of Neuropsychology.
"What others have found is that education, per se, seems to be somewhat beneficial, in that with age it lessens the effects [of cognitive decline] and it's protective of cognitive function," said co-researcher Cheryl Grady, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care at the University of Toronto.
"What we showed that is new is that the education effect in older adults is associated with frontal lobe activity. Those older adults who have more education have more activity in the frontal lobe," she said. "Recruitment of the frontal lobes is associated with better performance on cognitive tests in older adults."
In their study, the Toronto team looked at the relationship between education and brain activity in two different age groups: 14 adults aged 18 to 30 who had between 11 to 20 years of education; and 19 adults age 65 and older with eight to 21 years of education.
Each participant took part in several memory tests while researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These real-time fMRI images let researchers see which neural networks were activated when the participants tapped into their memories to answer questions.
The researchers then compared brain activity against years of education.
The findings: Younger and older adults had opposite patterns of activity in the frontal lobes and the medial temporal lobes of the brain (the frontal lobes are located behind the forehead; the medial temporal lobes are at the sides of the head).
The researchers found that among young adults, the higher their education the less they used their frontal lobes. But the opposite was true among older participants: Seniors with more education displayed increased use of the frontal lobes, the researchers found.
That led Grady's team to speculate that older adults, especially if they have a lot of education, rely on the frontal cortex as an alternative network to boost memory and other cognitive skills.
Why higher education lead to more activity in the frontal lobes isn't known for sure, Grady said, and it's also not clear if there's any way to boost this type of brain function in individuals who don't have college degrees. "We don't really know how to teach people to increase frontal lobe activity," she said.
However, those without higher education might try boosting memory by proven strategies, such as memory training and keeping active physically and mentally, Grady said.
Another expert said the study echoes some of his own findings.
"This study is consistent with our own research indicating that mental training can led to greater cognitive efficiency," said Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of the book The Memory Bible. "The findings further suggest that the most useful brain areas for memory appear to vary, according to both age and prior educational achievement," he said.
And Small has encouraging words for older adults who lack higher education.
"People should not feel it's too late [to preserve memory] if they did not go to college," he said. "Evidence suggests any kind of mental activity helps." His research has shown that memory can improve even as people enter their 70s and 80s.
In his book, Small outlines various tips to preserve and improve memory, including doing "mental aerobics" (staying mentally active), keeping physically active, and following a "healthy brain diet," emphasizing such foods an antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and foods with omega-3 fatty acids (such as mackerel and salmon), which are good for the heart and the brain.
To learn more about memory, visit the UCLA Center on Aging.