Adult Learning a Boost for the Brain

As fall approaches, it’s time for you to think about going back to school. Yes, you read that correctly: Researchers say that taking college courses can stimulate older adults’ brains and possibly ward off dementia.

Australian scientists followed 359 adults between ages 50 and 79 without dementia who enrolled in college courses, such as philosophy, fine art, history, and psychology. After a year of taking courses either part time or full time, the pupils fared better mentally than a control group of 100 people who chose not to take courses. What’s more, the cognitive effects lasted over the four-year course of the study.

More than 90 percent of the back-to-school group improved their cognitive capacity—the ability to process information, make decisions, retain memories, and make plans. Only 56 percent of the control group improved their cognitive capacity. The researchers also point out that those who took college courses volunteered to do so, indicating they might have been more inclined toward a higher cognitive capacity than the control group.

Most participants took classes on campus, but some chose online learning. While the study didn’t compare the effects of the two settings, the researchers suggest that you might gain the most benefits from taking courses in person since social interaction with professors and fellow students may boost your cognitive capacity even more.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.