College Studies For Older Adults: Reducing Risks of Alzheimer’s Disease


Going to college as a freshman can be quite a stressful experience for most since you’ll be introduced to a new environment with no one to depend on but yourself. It brings excitement and anxiety for many reasons, including academic responsibilities and meeting new people. However, a recent study published by the American Psychological Association found a very interesting finding about how attending college for older adults can benefit them.

The Australian study called the Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project examined whether engaging healthy older adults in university-level education may increase their cognitive capacity and reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The research includes 359 participants aged 50 to 79 who took a sequence of cognitive tests before finishing at least a year of full-time or part-time study at the University of Tasmania. Participants were then annually reassessed for three years after their studies. This article will explore some of its most crucial findings on how attending college studies for older adults can help improve their cognitive reserve and reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project

Alzheimer’s disease is a gradual neurological condition that shrinks the brain and causes brain cells to die. It is one of the most typical forms of dementia that results in a person’s cognitive, behavioral, and social abilities decline.

Currently, there is no existing cure for Alzheimer’s disease or treatment that can help alter the disease process in the brain, but several studies suggest that increasing an individual’s level of cognitive reserve (CR) can help to reduce the risk of rapid age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Prior studies have also examined how physical activity and cognitive training programs may improve cognitive capacity and stop aging-related cognitive decline. But according to one of the researchers, the Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project is the first to examine the positive effects of college courses taken by older adults on improving their cognitive reserve.

The study consisted of 459 participants that were divided into two groups which the participants voluntarily decided;

  • Intervention group (n=359) – those who engaged in any tertiary-level study.
  • Control group – those who did not engage in any tertiary-level study.

The study participants underwent a series of baseline assessments to gauge their cognitive capacity, or ability to effectively use their brain’s neural networks for tasks like memory, information processing, planning, and decision-making. The participants also took tests to ensure they do not have dementia and are of sound psychological and physical health. 

The intervention group took various classes in philosophy, history, psychology, and fine art. Most of them attended classes on campus, while some took lessons online. Although the study did not compare on-campus versus online courses, the researchers speculated that campus study might enhance cognitive capacity more because of social interaction with instructors and other students. 

The Findings

Throughout the four-year study, the participants underwent the same cognitive tests, and after analyzing the results, the researchers had the following findings:

  • 92 percent of the intervention group showed a great increase in cognitive capacity, while the other 8 percent generally maintained their cognitive capacity.
  • 56 percent of the control group demonstrated a significant increase in cognitive capacity, while 44 percent had no change.
  • The college course participants had higher cognitive capacity averages than those in the control group.
  • The participants’ age, gender, feelings of well-being, or level of social connectedness were found to have no significant impact on the findings. 

In conclusion, the findings suggest that engaging healthy older adults in tertiary education for a minimum of 12 months produces a measurable and crucial increase in cognitive capacity.

However, future research should be made to determine whether this increase in cognitive capacity is enough to counteract age-related cognitive decline and mitigate the risk for degenerative conditions such as dementia or delay the onset of clinical symptoms of dementia for those at risk of dementia.

Journal Reference

Lenehan, M. E., Summers, M. J., Saunders, N. L., Summers, J. J., Ward, D. D., Ritchie, K., & Vickers, J. C. (2016). Sending your grandparents to university increases Cognitive Reserve: The Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project. Neuropsychology, 30(5), 525–531. 

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