Education plays a key role in lifelong memory performance and risk for dementia, and it's well documented that those with a college degree possess a cognitive advantage over their less educated counterparts in middle and old age. But if you didn't attend college there's still a way to retain your memory, and it'll probably cost you a lot less than a degree.  A large national study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry shows that people with less schooling can significantly compensate for poorer education by frequently engaging in mental exercises such as word games, puzzles, reading, and lectures.

The study assessed 3,343 men and women between the ages of 32 and 84 with a mean age of 56 years. Almost 40 percent of the participants had at least a 4-year college degree. The researchers evaluated how the participants performed in two cognitive areas, verbal memory and executive function—brain processes involved in planning, abstract thinking and cognitive flexibility. Participants were given a battery of tests, including tests of verbal fluency, word recall, and backward counting.

As expected those with higher education said they engaged in cognitive activities more often and also did better on the memory tests, but some with lower education also did well, explained Lachman.

"The findings are promising because they suggest there may be ways to level the playing field for those with lower educational achievement, and protect those at greatest risk for memory declines," said Lachman. "Although we can not rule out the possibility that those who have better memories are the ones who take on more activities, the evidence is consistent with cognitive plasticity, and suggests some degree of personal control over cognitive functioning in adulthood by adopting an intellectually active lifestyle."

Citation:  Margie E. Lachman, Stefan Agrigoroaei, Chandra Murphy, Patricia A Tun, '
Frequent Cognitive Activity Compensates for Education Differences in Episodic Memory', American Journal of Geriatric Psych., January 2010, 18(1):4-10; doi: 10.1097/JGP.0b013e3181ab8b62