Higher quality education linked to improved cognition later in life

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 

A recent study from researchers at Columbia University have found that those who attended higher-quality schools had better cognitive function almost 60 years later. Their findings were published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia Diagnosis Assessment & Disease Monitoring.

The research included more than 2,220 adults that were in high school in the 1960s and focused on the quality of education provided by high school teachers, finding that there are long-term benefits to high-quality education.

Jennifer Manly, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study, said:

Our study establishes a link between high-quality education and better late-life cognition and suggests that increased investment in schools, especially those that serve black children, could be a powerful strategy to improve cognitive health among older adults in the United States.

Researchers used data from Project Talent, a 1960 survey of high school students across the U.S., as well as additional data collected by the Project Talent Aging Study to evaluate the relationships between six indicators of school quality and several measures of cognitive performance in study participants 58 years after they left high school.

The indicators that the research team evaluated were dropout rates among girls, dropout rates among boys, number of teachers with graduate training, teacher salaries, term length, and school size that had been reported by principals at the time of schooling.

The study results suggest that attending a school with a higher number of teachers with graduate training was the most consistent predictor of better later-life cognition, especially for language fluency. Researchers also found that attending a school with a high number of graduate-level teachers was approximately equivalent to the difference in cognition between a 70-year-old and someone who is one to three years older.

The other five indicators of school quality were associated with some measures of cognitive performance but did not have the same impact as the quality of teachers. According to the researchers, racial and ethnic differences in school quality, such as investment in teachers and term length, may contribute to disparities in later-life cognition.

Manly and her fellow researcher and study author Dominika Šeblová said there are many factors that may explain why attending schools with well-trained teachers may affect later-life cognition.

“Instruction provided by more experienced and knowledgeable teachers might be more intellectually stimulating and provide additional neural or cognitive benefits,” Šeblová said, adding that “attending higher-quality schools may also influence life trajectory, leading to university education and greater earnings, which are in turn linked to better cognition in later life.”

The team found similar associations between school quality and cognition in later life for white and black students. However, black students were more likely to have attended lower-quality schools.

“Racial equity in school quality has never been achieved in the United States and school racial segregation has grown more extreme in recent decades, so this issue is still a substantial problem,” Manly said. “Racial inequalities in school quality may contribute to persistent disparities in late-life cognitive outcomes for decades to come.”

The authors suggest “increased investment in schools, especially those that serve black children, could be a powerful strategy to improve cognitive health among older adults in the United States.”

The United States spent almost $800 billion on public education in 2019-2020 for almost 100,000 public schools in the country.