Years of education may pay off long after graduation. A new study shows that the more educated you are, the more active your mind is likely to be in old age.

The study showed that depending on their educational status, older and younger adults had opposite patterns of brain activity when performing memory tasks.

For example, activity in the frontal lobes (search) region (the part of the brain right under the forehead) is used more when performing memory tasks in highly educated older and less-educated young adults, while less-educated seniors and highly educated young adults relied more on the temporal lobes (search) alone.

The frontal lobes are involved in problem solving, memory, language, and organizing memory input -- it helps place words or pictures into categories.

Researchers say results indicate years of education allow older people to effectively "call up the reserves" in their brain. They say their study shows that enlisting the frontal lobe to help them solve tasks may be an alternative brain network used by highly educated older adults to compensate for age-related declines in memory function.

They say the findings also show that education may help protect the brain from the normal declines in memory and other skills that occur with age.

Education May Help Memory

In the study, researchers examined the relationship between education and brain activity in two different age groups: a group of 14 young adults aged 18 to 30 with 11 to 20 years of education and a group of 19 adults aged 65 and up with eight to 21 years of education.

The results appear in the March issue of Neuropsychology.

Since memory is known to decline as people age, researchers tested each group on a series of memory tasks while scanning their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

As expected, researchers found that the older adults performed worse on the memory tests. But the brain networks related to education and memory performance were different between the two groups.

The study showed that in young adults, more education was associated with less use of the frontal lobes and more use of the temporal lobes. But for older adults doing the same memory tasks, more years of education was linked to less use of the temporal lobes and more use of the frontal lobes.

Researchers say the results show that older adults with higher education may use the frontal lobes as an alternative network to help in performing daily tasks.

"Many studies have now shown that frontal activity is greater in old adults, compared to young; our work suggests that this effect is related to the educational level in the older participants," says researcher Cheryl Grady, PhD, of Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. "The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in a better memory performance."

In this manner, more years of education may allow the brain to function better long into retirement.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Springer, M. Neuropsychology, March 2005; vol 19: pp 181-192. News release, American Psychological Association.