Education and Cognitive Functioning Across the Life Span

Cognitive abilities are important predictors of educational and occupational performance, socioeconomic attainment, health, and longevity. Declines in cognitive abilities are linked to impairments in older adults’ everyday functions, but people differ from one another in their rates of cognitive decline over the course of adulthood and old age. Hence, identifying factors that protect against compromised late-life cognition is of great societal interest. The number of years of formal education completed by individuals is positively correlated with their cognitive function throughout adulthood and predicts lower risk of dementia late in life. These observations have led to the propositions that prolonging education might (a) affect cognitive ability and (b) attenuate aging-associated declines in cognition. We evaluate these propositions by reviewing the literature on educational attainment and cognitive aging, including recent analyses of data harmonized across multiple longitudinal cohort studies and related meta-analyses. In line with the first proposition, the evidence indicates that educational attainment has positive effects on cognitive function. We also find evidence that cognitive abilities are associated with selection into longer durations of education and that there are common factors (e.g., parental socioeconomic resources) that affect both educational attainment and cognitive development. There is likely reciprocal interplay among these factors, and among cognitive abilities, during development. Education–cognitive ability associations are apparent across the entire adult life span and across the full range of education levels, including (to some degree) tertiary education. However, contrary to the second proposition, we find that associations between education and aging-associated cognitive declines are negligible and that a threshold model of dementia can account for the association between educational attainment and late-life dementia risk. We conclude that educational attainment exerts its influences on late-life cognitive function primarily by contributing to individual differences in cognitive skills that emerge in early adulthood but persist into older age. We also note that the widespread absence of educational influences on rates of cognitive decline puts constraints on theoretical notions of cognitive aging, such as the concepts of cognitive reserve and brain maintenance. Improving the conditions that shape development during the first decades of life carries great potential for improving cognitive ability in early adulthood and for reducing public-health burdens related to cognitive aging and dementia.

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About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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