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Education May Delay Aging

Scientists studying the aging process and software companies have recently become unlikely bedfellows as they consider the same idea: learning can extend a person's lifespan and improve their overall quality of life. It appears that elderly people who engage in adult education are more likely to maintain good memory and cognitive skills as well as increase their lifespan.

The New York Times recently published a story claiming that having money and insurance "paled in comparison" to education as a factor in graceful aging. The article pointed to the first serious effort to study this possible link as the 1999 dissertation thesis of Adriana Lleras-Muney, then a graduate student at Columbia University, who found that people at the age of 35 could increase their life expectancy as much as 18 months if they completed one extra year of schooling. In her study, she referenced research completed in 1969 by three health economists who found that education over many years had a greater affect on anti-aging than medical care. Similarly, Anne Case, a student at Princeton, reported that "each additional year of schooling for men in the U.S. is associated with an 8 percent reduction in mortality."

Education and mental fitness also appear to stave off the debilitating effects of age-related mental degeneration. The New England Journal of Medicine published in 2003 a study that revealed seniors over 75 years of age had lower rates of Alzheimer's and dementia if they continued to read and engage in other physical and artistic activities. As a result of these findings, the Alzheimer's Association now sponsors "Maintain Your Brain" workshops all over the country to encourage people to enroll in courses at local education centers and community groups. In addition, Dr. Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Center on Aging, conducts research he calls "Mental Aerobics," as a way of "cross-training" the mind to keep it conditioned.

But how do these activities actually combat mental aging? As people age they tend to become less socially active and demands on their memory and cognitive abilities decrease. While there are many who do not settle for this "mental retirement," others allow their neural networks to slowly shrink due to a lack of stimulation. Researchers have found that without maintenance, the brain's nerve cells shrink and eventually die off, while learning creates new networks for the brain's electrical impulses to travel through and consistent use of those networks strengthens their connections.

This new research may lead to a new philosophy for elderly care. Dan Michel, founder of Dakim Inc., began researching techniques to combat Alzheimer's after watching his father suffer from the disease and ultimately developed the (m)Power cognitive fitness system. (m)Power uses age-appropriate multi-media, such as old movies, songs and art, to exercise different brain functions including long and short-term memory, language, critical thinking. The Posit Science Corporation has also recently developed software called the "Brain Fitness Program" designed to improve memory and brain "plasticity" (the ability to create new neural pathways and connections in response to new experiences). Even computer game maker Nintendo has gotten in on the trend with "Brain Age," which claims to measure your "brain age" before presenting a string of exercises designed to stimulate the brain and shave years off the gamer's calculated brain age. Although Timothy Salthouse PhD, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, points out that the Nintendo game should not be taken too seriously because brain age can not be accurately calculated.

Scientists once believed that the adult brain was "hard-wired" and steadily declined into old age. Now it is becoming widely understood that the brain can be progressively re-modeled well into old age through challenging activities such as learning new subjects, trying new things and tackling problems that pose the greatest difficulty for the individual.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and having the courage to attack the most challenging issues is the key to mental health. It all begins by believing in yourself.


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