Does Education Level Affect the Risk of Developing Dementia?

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Interested in preventing dementia? You may want to go back to school.

Several research studies have demonstrated that people with higher educational levels are less likely to develop dementia.

A study published in Neurology found that higher levels of education decreased the risk of developing dementia. The question of if dementia was more prevalent in people with low levels of education because of a less healthy lifestyle was explored, but the researchers concluded that the results more likely were attributed to increased cognitive reserve.

A second study outlined in Brain involved research of 872 brain donors following their death. Higher education levels were correlated to greater brain volume and reduced incidence of dementia at time of death. Interestingly, increased education did not protect the brain against pathologies associated with dementia, but it did reduce the effect that those pathologies had on people's thought process, memory and other cognitive abilities.

In a study published in 2012 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, higher education levels were also connected with better performances on cognitive tests.

How Is Cognitive Reserve Affected by Education?

One theory about why education levels affect the risk of developing dementia has to do with cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the thought that people with bigger brain sizes and those with more educated (and thus developed) brains have an increased ability to compensate for declines in brain structure as people age.

According to some research, even just a few years of formal education will increase your cognitive reserve.

Does Education Level Affect how Quickly Cognition Declines?

Research results vary on this issue. One found that although education level was clearly correlated with cognitive functioning in older age, it did not affect the speed of cognitive decline.

Another study determined that higher education levels resulted in a slower than average decline in mental ability over time.


American Journal of Epidemiology. (2012) 175 (8): 750-759. Is Cognitive Aging Predicted by One’s Own or One’s Parents’ Educational Level? Results From the Three-City Study.

Brain: A Journal of Neurology. 133; 2210–2216.

Neurology. October 2, 2007 vol. 69 no. 14 1442-1450. Education and dementia: What lies behind the association?

Neurology. February 3, 2009 vol. 72 no. 5 460-465. Educational attainment and cognitive decline in old age.

Neurology. August 13, 2013 vol. 81 no. 7 650-657. Very low levels of education and cognitive reserve: A clinicopathologic study.

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