Higher education does not influence brain ageing

A new study from the Lifebrain consortium, coordinated by the University of Oslo with the participation of the University of Barcelona, finds that higher education does not slow brain ageing, contrary to the popular belief. This study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers have known for a long time that all brains shrink with age. A common perception has been that education would be a way to hold back this shrinkage. However, there is no evidence to prove this hypothesis.

One of the participants in this study, David Bartrés Faz, expert from the Institute of Neurosciences of the UB (UBNeuro), notes that “a positive association between the level of education and the level of neurocognitive functioning has been reported in some past studies, and it is consistent with the idea that individuals with higher education have an initial advantage over individuals with lower education which they may carry through their adult lives”.

This evidence comes mainly from cross-sectional research studies, which cannot determine how the associations between education, brain and the potential associated cognitive changes occur across time within individuals.

Brains shrink at the same rate

Through the pooling of several European brain data sets from the Lifebrain consortium, the current study has been able to track brain changes in individuals over many years. The results of this study were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The researchers found that, whereas highly educated people have slightly larger brain volumes than less educated people, their brains shrink at the same rate throughout life. “This finding suggests that higher education does not influence brain ageing” says Lars Nyberg, professor at Umeå University in Sweden, first author of the study and also member of the Lifebrain consortium.

Measured brain shrinkage over time

The researchers measured brain ageing by measuring the volume of the cortical mantle and hippocampus regions of the brain in MRI scans from more than 2000 participants in the Lifebrain and UK biobanks. These areas of the brain are prone to shrinkage over time, as a natural part of ageing. Participants’ brains were scanned up to three times over an 11-year period, in what is known as a “longitudinal” study.

“This is what makes this study unique”, says Nyberg. “The study is a large-scale longitudinal test, with replication across two independent samples, and is one of the largest of its kind.”
The researchers compared the rate of the shrinkage of these areas in people who had finished their higher education studies before the age of 30 and those without higher education studies. The participants were aged between 29 and 91.

Higher education is modestly related to bigger brains
Whereas the rate of brain change was similar in participants with and without higher education, the researchers found that those with higher education studies had a slightly larger cortical volume in some regions, but even in these regions the rate of change was unrelated to education.

Anders Fjell, from the University of Oslo and one of the main authors of the paper, stresses that “The study does not say that education is not important. Education is associated with advantages in life, but we cannot say from this study whether education causes these advantages”. “If people with higher education studies have larger brains —continues the researcher—, this may delay the onset of dementia or other conditions associated with a lower cognitive functioning”.

“The bottom line is that all people’s brains shrink eventually, but the rate of this shrinkage does not seem to be affected by how many years you spent in school,” concludes Fjell.

About the Lifebrain consortium
Lifebrain is an EU-funded Horizon 2020 consortium integrating data from 6,000 research participants collected in eleven European brain-imaging studies in seven countries. The major goal of the project is to ensure a fuller exploitation, harmonization and enrichment of some of the largest longitudinal studies of age differences in brain and cognition in Europe. The cohorts from the UB belongs to the Neuropsychology Group at UBNeuro and the Department of Medicine.

The study was performed in collaboration with the Lifebrain consortium partners: University of Barcelona, Copenhagen University Hospital Amager and Hvidovre (Denmark), University of Lübeck (Germany), Max Planck Institute for Human Development (Germany), Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research (Germany), Vitas AS (Norway), University of Oxford (United Kingdom), University of Geneva (Switzerland), University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), VU University Medical Centre Amsterdam (Netherlands), Oslo University Hospital (Norway) and University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf (Germany).

Article reference
Nyberg et al. “Educational attainment does not influence brain ageing”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, May 4, 2021 118 (18) e2101644118. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2101644118