A Life of Leisure? How Lifelong Education, Work & Even Leisure Can Impact Cognitive Aging

Researchers have previously looked at biological or neurological factors to explore cognitive wellness. However, there still is not a clear picture of why there are such large differences in individuals’ cognitive performance as they age. To continue to explore this variability, recent research has begun to examine possible demographic and behavioral factors that may improve cognitive wellness with aging.  

Researchers recruited 1,347 older adults to participate in their study about the factors impacting cognitive aging. These participants were divided into a successful cognitive aging group, a mild cognitive impairment group, and a cognitively normal control group. Splitting these participants into groups allowed researchers to examine what factors may influence how a person functions cognitively as they age. By collecting detailed demographic and behavioral characteristics for each participant, this study found four important factors that explained the largest amount of variability in cognitive performance: level of education, age, mental activity, and occupational attainment. Larger amounts of early-life cognitive reserve (which includes level of education and occupational attainment) was a distinct characteristic of the successful cognitive aging group. On the other hand, lesser amounts of late-life leisure activity (which includes mental, physical, and social activities) was a distinct characteristic of the mild cognitive impairment group. This suggests that it may be vital for individuals to engage in lifelong educational, vocational, and leisurely activities in order to age well. 

More research is needed to determine additional factors related to aging well, cognitively or otherwise. Additionally, researchers should further define what it means to be “successful” in aging, as this may look different depending on an individual’s culture, ability, or other factors. Still, this study provides important preliminary guidance on how to cognitively age well—guidance that individuals of all ages should consider given the need for lifelong cognitive engagement.  


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Yang, Y., Chen, Y., Yang, C., Chen, K., Li, X., & Zhang, Z. (2022). Contributions of early-life cognitive reserve and late-life leisure activity to successful and pathological cognitive aging. BMC Geriatrics, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-022-03530-5 

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