Figure 1. Older students were more successful at university curriculum than their younger peers.

Age Is No Barrier For Academic Success

By Maryna Mullerman ’20

Figure 1. Older students were more successful at university curriculum than their younger peers.
Figure 1. Older students were more successful at university curriculum than their younger peers.

Many studies have explored academic success predictors in young adults. In recent years, however, more people over the age of 60 have undertaken university educations. Abbie-Rose Imlach and researchers from the University of Tasmania in Australia hoped to identify cognitive, psychological, social, and genetic factors that influenced academic performance in older adults. The researchers hypothesized that factors such as genetic polymorphism, previous education, midlife engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, social engagement, higher IQ, and working memory were associated with better academic performance.

The study recruited 329 male and female participants who were between 50 and 79 years old. The subjects consented to annual examinations within the Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project (THBP). Participants were mostly part-time students taking classes within the Faculty of Arts. Grade point average (GPA) was used to measure academic performance while course grades reflected learning outcomes. Midlife mental engagement, episodic and working memory, language processing, and social, psychological, and genetic factors were evaluated to determine effects on each participant’s GPA.

There were no observable GPA score differences between males and females. The most significant predictors of GPA with a strong positive association were language processing, mental activity across participant lifespan, episodic memory, and years of prior education. Genes that were known to be linked to aging-related neurodegeneration did not have a significant impact on academic performance and related mental activity. Compared to their younger classmates, older students were more successful with attaining academic results in college.

The study was limited to participants that had greater than high school education and were mostly female. The hypothesized relationships between GPA and IQ, gender, age, genetics, and anxiety and depression were not supported by the study’s results.  Still, the researchers suggested that lifelong engagement in cognitive activities, positive social engagement, developed language processing, and episodic memory greatly contributed to the academic success of older adults. The findings showed that academic performance predictors were not static, and aging did not hinder effective learning. This study emphasized the importance of older adults having access to further education, enhancing cognitive function and preventing neurodegeneration. Future research on neuronal degradation prevention might reveal new links to active cognitive engagement.


  1. A. Imlach, et al., Age is no barrier: predictors of academic success in older learners. npj Science of Learning 2, (2017). doi: 10.1038/s41539-017-0014-5.
  2. Image retrieved from:

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