UC Berkeley study finds that more education leads to better cognitive function later in life

David Lee/Staff

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A study led by campus researchers found that higher levels of education are linked to later ages of peak cognitive performance.

The study, published in PLOS ONE on Wednesday, was conducted by campus psychology professor Dr. Silvia Bunge, graduate psychology student Belén Guerra-Carrillo and General Assembly Space statistician Kiefer Katovich. According to Bunge, the group had long been aware of data suggesting that cognitive ability peaks around the age of 21 and questioned whether education levels affected this pattern.

The team was able to use anonymous data gathered from almost 200,000 subscribers to Lumosity, an online cognitive training program, whose users consented that their results could be used for scientific research. Lumosity became involved in the study through its Human Cognition Project, which aims to provide researchers with cognitive data from Lumosity’s training tools.

“There have been a handful of studies before this, but this gave us the opportunity to use this huge, interesting data set through Lumosity, so we can actually measure that relationship between educational attainment and performance,” said Bob Schafer, Lumosity’s head of research.

The data indicated that higher levels of education are linked to better overall cognitive performance across the 15 to 60 age range. A subset of about 70,000 of the total subscribers was also asked to take a series of cognitive tests for a second time after completing 100 days of cognitive training to test abilities to learn new things.

Testing response speed declined with age, regardless of education level. Conversely, those who received higher levels of education scored higher on more complex tests that focused on reasoning.

According to the study, the test population was split into educational categories, with minimal differences in performance between those with a bachelor’s degree and a high school diploma compared to differences between those with a doctorate and a high school diploma. For each educational category, the data also indicated that peak cognitive performance occurs around the age of graduation.

Additionally, the findings showed that people with higher educational attainment have only a slight gain in learning, suggesting that those without the same opportunities can make up for gaps in education. According to Guerra-Carrillo, this “speaks to the importance of gaining access to education.”

When the team first started the study, it had three potential predictions: that there would be no improvement at all, that people who started with a lower level of education would improve more or that people with a higher education would learn more. Their results, however, showed that everyone was learning more, not just those with higher levels of education.

“The novelty (of this study) is looking at learning on such a large scale — how it affects increase in performance over time, rather than just at one time point,” Bunge said.

Carina Zhao covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @c_zhao96.