Staying sharp: the long-term health benefits of higher education

Staying sharp: the long-term health benefits of higher education

Undertaking a university degree won’t just unlock all kinds of cleverness – evidence suggests it may also reduce the risk of heart disease and dementia.

Head of the Lincoln Centre for Research on Ageing and Professor of Aged Care Research at La Trobe University, Yvonne Wells, explains the link between better health and higher education.

Hitting your peak

According to a recent study, the higher the level of education a person has, the later in life they experience peak cognition – suggesting that undertaking a university degree could help stave off age-related cognitive decline.

The results of the study, which analysed data from around 196,000 participants in the United States, Canada, and Australia, came as no surprise to Wells, who believes more stimulating careers might be a contributing factor.

If you think of the kinds of occupations that people with higher education go into, they’re intellectually challenging and interesting, and provide opportunities for continued learning,’ she says.

‘Academics are a case in point: we go to conferences, we read books, we do all those things which are helping us stave off age-related cognitive decline, but also that maximise the potential that we have.’

Decreased dementia risk

Challenging and interesting careers that provide opportunities for continued learning are just one of the positive outcomes associated with a university degree.

Studies also show that the more education a person has, the less likely they are to develop dementia in the longer term.

‘The way people think it works is that education confers a kind of cushion, if you like, so that people who are functioning more highly as they grow older essentially can lose more cognitive capacity before it becomes obvious that they have a cognitive issue,’ Wells explains.

However, this is just one of two main theories behind the connection – the other is what Wells calls the ‘I can afford more healthy behaviours’ hypothesis.

It may be that because people with higher levels of education have higher earning capacity they can afford to eat better, to pay for exercise programs, to undertake further educational opportunities to stimulate their brain and their cognitive function,’ Wells says.

‘And so it’s possible that in fact there’s a multiplying effect over time – but that’s just a hypothesis that I have as to why that might be the case.’

Research suggests undertaking a university degree helps prevent age-related cognitive decline.

Matters of the heart

While the fact that learning has positive effects on your brain is perhaps not so surprising – although the specific nature, length and strength of the various impacts certainly is – another recent study found a causal relationship between longer education and a decreased risk of coronary heart disease.

The mediating factor behind this link appears to be more clear-cut – as Wells noted in her ‘healthy behaviours’ hypothesis, people who are more educated tend to make better lifestyle choices.

That is, they don’t smoke as much, have a healthier diet and lower cholesterol level, and – importantly – are less likely to suffer from hypertension.

‘One of the things about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is that it’s associated with poor health behaviours because it’s associated with hypertension,’ Wells says, ‘and so the same things that lead to a risk of heart disease and stroke are also associated with a higher risk of dementia as well.

Wells says this is why we need to do several things to keep our brains healthy. This includes: stimulating our brain; keeping physically active and eating well; as well as engaging in social activity.

Nobody actually knows why that works, but it’s come out in a number of studies that social activity is actually a protective factor against Alzheimer’s or at least against cognitive deterioration,” Well says.

“It’s possible that getting together with other people is stimulating, or it may be that there are protective effects against things like mild symptoms of depression.’

So there you have it – university degrees are associated with healthier hearts and minds. That’s something else worth celebrating on graduation day.

Give yourself the gift of good health with postgraduate study at La Trobe.