Use it or lose it (Issue 4, 2012)

Elderly couple

Elderly coupleA recent US study has identified education as a fundamental part of mental fitness and has been shown to slow the brain’s ageing process. Dr John McCormack, Director of the Australian Centenarian Study at La Trobe University, says that education can also be a protective factor against early onset dementia and help people live longer.

‘Continuing education and life involvement into old age is seen to support the "cognitive reserve" hypothesis, which is that education builds adaptive and coping behaviour which can offset or maintain cognitive capacity into older age,’ says Dr McCormack.

Dr McCormack, who has been the Australian representative on the International Database on Longevity since 2001 and validated the ages of half of the recorded Super Centenarians in Australia, has interviewed over 130 centenarians – people over the age of 100.

‘Regarding longevity, the great advantage of following very old people is that we have ascertained that while the probability of dementia increases with age, it is not necessarily inevitable for everyone.

‘The bottom line is that for those with dementia, and especially their family and carers, this can be a very stressful time, and any strategies, including further education, to cope with this situation will be well received.’

Dr McCormack has found that people who live longer frequently report maintaining active lifestyles physically, mentally or socially.

‘We know from life satisfaction studies that people who do continue working tend to have better health as they continue an active lifestyle and participate socially. It maintains their health and they're interacting with other people.’

Currently there are about 4,000 people aged 100 years or older in Australia, a number that doubles every eight years. According to Dr McCormack this is due to many contributing factors that maintain mental and physical health.

‘Ageing is a lifelong process and if you start healthy you may stay healthy longer. Similarly maintaining some sort of life-long educational involvement fits with the commonly quoted idea that you should use it or lose it.’