Posted on May 02, 2023, 3 p.m.
“Never confuse education with intelligence, you can have a Ph.D. and still be an idiot.” A famous quote from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman may have a point according to recent research described in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring, from Columbia University which suggests that high-quality education might offer some long-term cognitive benefits at the very least.
This work involved more than 2,300 adults who attended high school in America during the 1960s, the findings indicate that those who attended higher-quality schools demonstrated better cognitive functioning some 60 years later. Previous studies indicate that the number of years spent in school correlates with cognition later in life, but few studies examine the impact of educational quality on cognition.
“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,” says Jennifer Manly, Ph.D., professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study.
For this study, the relationships between 6 indicators of school quality were analyzed along with several measures of cognitive performance among the participants around 60 years after they left high school. High-quality schools tend to be beneficial for all people, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as such the researchers also analyzed whether associations differed according to other factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, and geography. However, it was noted that the information only included sufficient data that pertained to Black and White participants.
According to the researchers attending a school with a higher number of teachers featuring graduate training was the most consistent predictor of better cognition later in life, in particular language fluency. Attending an institution with a higher number of graduate-level teachers was found to be equivalent to the difference in cognition between a 70-year-old and another person 1-3 years older. It was noted that additional school quality indicators had a link to some but not all measures of cognitive performance and that there are many potential reasons that could explain why attending school with well-trained teachers may affect cognition in later life.
“Instruction provided by more experienced and knowledgeable teachers might be more intellectually stimulating and provide additional neural or cognitive benefits,” Šeblová explains, “and 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 associations between school quality and cognition later in life were found to be largely similar between both Black and White students, but Black participants were more likely to have attended lower-quality schools in the 1960s according to the researchers. But other research conducted in 2016 suggests that this issue is still a concern, finding that in America, schools in areas with an attendance consisting of a majority of non-White students had twice as many inexperienced teachers in comparison to schools in areas with the majority of student attendance being White students.
“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,” says Professor Manly.
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