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Middle-aged folks and older people in adult education classes had a 19% lower risk of developing dementia within five years, the researchers found.
"We also found that nonverbal reasoning performance was well preserved in the adults taking education classes, even after adjusting for genetic factors and baseline performance," said lead researcher Hikaru Takeuchi. He is an associate professor at the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.
To explain these findings, Takeuchi speculated that keeping the brain active might have a biological effect in the body that protects against cognitive (mental) decline.
"Intellectual activities may have positive effect on the nervous system, which in turn may prevent dementia," he said.
But, Takeuchi emphasized, this observational study doesn't prove that it's the classes themselves that lower dementia risk. Randomized trials are needed to verify cause and effect.
For the study, Takeuchi and his colleague Dr. Ryuta Kawashima analyzed data on more than 282,000 people who were part of the UK Biobank between 2006 and 2010. Participants were 40 to 69 years of age. Periodically, they took psychological and cognitive tests. They were followed, on average, for seven years.
Over that period, 1% of participants developed dementia.
Takeuchi and Kawashima found that participants who were taking adult ed classes at the study's start had a 19% lower risk of developing dementia, compared with participants who weren't.
The study also found that adult ed students had better nonverbal reasoning skills, as well as better fluid intelligence. That refers to the ability to think abstractly, reason quickly and solve new problems.
After reviewing the findings, Claire Sexton of the Alzheimer's Association noted that many factors influence the risk for cognitive decline and dementia.
"Some, like our age, are not modifiable. Others, including education levels, physical activity, diet and vascular health, are modifiable," she pointed out. "There is evidence that such factors should be considered throughout our lifespan."
Adult classes might indeed be protective, Sexton said.
"It may be that cognitive activity has direct beneficial effects on the brain, or make the brain more resilient to changes that can occur with aging or disease," Sexton said. "But it may be that individuals who engage in adult education classes have lower risk for other reasons."
For example, they may have benefited from more education or higher economic status. Or, they may be more active physically or have increased social contact due to interactions within their classes, she added.
"Research is still evolving, but evidence is strong that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by making key lifestyle changes, including participating in regular physical activity, not smoking, protecting one's head from injury, and maintaining good heart health," Sexton said. "It is likely not one thing, but incorporating as many of the healthier habits as we can into our life as we age, resulting in an overall brain-healthy lifestyle."
Given that there is no definitive treatment for dementia, a healthy lifestyle may be the best people can do, said Dr. Marzena Gieniusz, a geriatrician at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
"As a geriatrician who is passionate about cognitive health, I get excited when I see evidence supporting interventions that may lower the risk of developing dementia, or even just slow down cognitive decline," she said.
Because effective treatments for dementia that are practical and make a meaningful difference are still not available, "the tools we do have and can utilize to either prevent the disease or manage the disease once present are even more imperative," Gieniusz said.
"Having more evidence supporting the benefit of adult education classes as a way to challenge the brain, [and] build cognitive strength gives us more hope and confidence that there are things we can still do to optimize quality of life for patients and their loved ones for as long as we can — this makes a difference," she added.
The report was published Aug. 23 in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
For more on keeping your brain healthy, head to the Alzheimer's Association.
SOURCES: Hikaru Takeuchi, PhD, associate professor, division of developmental cognitive neuroscience, Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan; Claire Sexton, DPhil, senior director, scientific programs and outreach, Alzheimer's Association, Chicago; Marzena Gieniusz, MD, geriatrician, Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, Aug. 23, 2023
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