• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Study: College grads heal brain injury faster

A new report suggests going to college gives a sevenfold improved chance to fully recover from traumatic brain injury.
April 28, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
There are lots of benefits to being a college graduate, like having a higher earning potential. But now a new report suggests going to college gives you another benefit, and it's a physical one.

How well a person comes back from a fairly serious head injury is something scientists are vigorously studying, but new research finds one factor may make a huge difference.

"People who have more education measured by years -- more college, graduate degrees, et cetera -- did better following the same level of moderate or severe traumatic brain injury," said Dr. Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon at Keck Medical Center of USC.

So could college classes bulk up your brain? A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Neurology tracked 769 people who suffered from a traumatic brain injury.

After a year, 219 people had recovered enough to return to work or school. Researchers found with increasing education came a higher chance of disability-free recovery.

Those with a college education had a nearly seven-time greater chance of getting back to how they were before than high school dropouts.

Dr. Zada says people with more mental stimulation have more of what's called "cognitive reserve."

"It's really the way the brain is wired that we think that is very important. Brain size is not as important as people may think," said Zada.

When you're challenging yourself or learning something new, doctors say you're creating or strengthening neural connections. And it's the strength of those neuro-connections, or wiring, that protects you.

"Keep challenging yourself, keep growing and that may prevent anything like this from happening, or it may help you recover from an event like this if that should ever happen to you," said Zada.

While the study took mostly college education into account, Zada says there are other things you can do to keep your brain sharp: Things like learning a new language or doing a crossword puzzle, or anything that makes you look at things in a new way and challenge yourself.