My generation spends a lot of time complaining about student loans—and rightfully. College graduates collectively owe right around $1 trillion, a stifling number, even if you don’t consider the bleak job market which now expects graduates in their early 20s to work for a few years as interns before turning a single buck. Young adults are increasingly moving back in with their parents after graduation and cursing the system that makes a basic undergrad degree so unaffordable.
Partly because of the stress inherent in being 23 and $50,000 in debt, 20-somethings appreciate evidence that those four years weren’t a waste. Many of us had the opportunity to travel and make life-long friends, as well as future work contacts who helped secure an internship which eventually may have lead to an assisting position. That has to be worth something. Now, in addition to those benefits, there’s evidence that a college education may be part of what keeps mental decline at bay as young adults move into middle age.
This morning’s New York Times “A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond” described research by Margie E. Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University who specializes in aging.
As part of a study called Midlife in the United States, or Midus, which the Times describes as “the Manhattan project of middle age,” Lachman and her colleagues accessed a sample group of more than 7,000 people 25 to 74 years old to study what happens to our intelligence as we work our way over the proverbial hill.
Many researchers separate human intelligence into two categories: “‘fluid intelligence,’ the abilities that produce solutions not based on experience, like pattern recognition, working memory and abstract thinking, the kind of intelligence tested on I.Q. examinations,” and “Crystallized intelligence,” which “generally refers to skills that are acquired through experience and education, like verbal ability, inductive reasoning and judgment. While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.”
Normally as people age there’s a decline in fluid intelligence, while other capabilities involving crystallized intelligence improve.
Seeking to find out how the decline in fluid intelligence can be halted, Lachman and her colleagues “devised several quick memory, calculation and reasoning tests that could be easily administered to thousands of the Midus participants,” which are explained in more detail in the article.
Among other results, Lachman’s group found that higher education played a key role in slowing the decline of fluid intelligence.
“All other things being equal, the more years of school a subject had, the better he or she performed on every mental test. Up to age 75, the studies showed, ‘people with college degrees performed on complex tasks like less-educated individuals who were 10 years younger.’
“Education was also associated with a longer life and decreased risk of dementia. ‘The effects of education are dramatic and long term,’ Dr. Lachman says.”
This doesn’t mean you should race out and enroll in grad school to keep your brain from atrophying 35 years down the road. In fact, study skills learned in undergrad may be sufficient to keep your mind young, as long as you employ them throughout life. The researchers were surprised to find that people could make up for less advantages and education handicaps by keeping their minds active in a myriad of ways like reading, writing and word puzzles.
“Education seems to be an elixir that can bring us a healthy body and mind throughout adulthood and even a longer life,” Lachman told the Times.
So maybe those student loans are worth it after all.