How Higher Levels of Education May Reduce Dementia Risk

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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.

Research on Education and Dementia

One 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 (changes in the brain itself) associated with dementia, but it did reduce the effect that those pathologies had on people's thought process, memory, and other cognitive abilities. In other words, despite brain changes similar to people with dementia, the brain changes in persons with high levels of education didn't cause the same decline in cognition.

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

Interestingly, the University of Michigan compared dementia rates from 2000 to those of 2012 and found that there was a slight decline in the prevalence of dementia. Their research points out that a significant increase in education levels was correlated with the decrease in dementia rates.

Additionally, lower education levels were a strong predictor of the development of Alzheimer's disease in a comprehensive review of 247 studies.

In fact, one study found that literacy levels that fell below the 9th grade were significantly correlated with an increased risk of dementia.

How Much Difference Does Education Make?

A study published in Annals of Epidemiology reported that for each additional year of education, the participants' chance of dementia decreased by 2.1 percentage points.

The Lancet commission also released research results that demonstrated that dementia prevention may begin early in life with education up to age 15. After reviewing several research studies, they concluded that up to 8 percent of all dementia cases may be connected to poor education early in life.

Why Does the Amount of Education Make a Difference?

A study published in Neurology also found that higher levels of education decreased the risk of developing dementia. But these researchers went further and tried to determine why this might be. Specifically, they wondered if that association might actually be due to a less healthy lifestyle and the increase in cardiovascular problems often found in people with lower levels of education.

At the conclusion of their study, they determined that the correlation between higher education levels and lower dementia risk was primarily due to increased cognitive reserve, although they acknowledged that decreased health is an additional risk factor for dementia.

How Is Cognitive Reserve Affected by Education?

As mentioned, one very plausible theory about why education levels affect the risk of developing dementia has to do with cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the idea that people with more educated (and thus more 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.

Another study involved performing lumbar punctures of the participants and measuring the levels of tau and amyloid beta protein (typically affected by dementia) in the spinal fluid. The researchers found that these cerebrospinal fluid markers displayed fewer age-related changes in those with higher education. Higher education was defined in this study as the acquisition of 16 or more years of education (equivalent to a 4-year college experience).

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.

A Word From Verywell

While we are still working to fully understand what causes Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia, we are gaining ground on identifying ways to reduce our risk of dementia. Attaining higher levels of education and pursuing several different types of mental activity appear to be worthwhile, research-backed strategies to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Sources:

Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2017. July 20, 2017. The Lancet Commission: One Third of Dementia May Be Preventable. 

Beydoun MA, Beydoun HA, Gamaldo AA, Teel A, Zonderman AB, Wang Y. Epidemiologic studies of modifiable factors associated with cognition and dementia: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health. 2014;14:643. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-643.

Brayne, C, Ince, PG, Keage, HAD,  McKeith, I, Fiona E. Matthews, Tuomo Polvikoski, Raimo Sulkava; Education, the brain and dementia: neuroprotection or compensation?: EClipSE Collaborative Members. Brain 2010; 133 (8): 2210-2216. http://www.eclipsestudy.eu/publications/

Brain: A Journal of Neurology. 133; 2210–2216. http://www.eclipsestudy.eu/pages/publications/Brain_2010.pdf

Langa KM, Larson EB, Crimmins EM, Faul JD, Levine DA, Kabeto MU, Weir DR. A Comparison of the Prevalence of Dementia in the United States in 2000 and 2012. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(1):51-58. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2587084​

Neurology. October 2, 2007 vol. 69 no. 14 1442-1450. Education and dementia: What lies behind the association?http://www.neurology.org/content/69/14/1442.abstract

Neurology. August 13, 2013 vol. 81 no. 7 650-657. Very low levels of education and cognitive reserve: A clinicopathologic study. http://www.neurology.org/content/81/7/650.abstract?sid=2e0ce16a-079a-4901-8a52-ac643ca14965

Nguyen TT, Tchetgen Tchetgen EJ, Kawachi I, et al. Instrumental variable approaches to identifying the causal effect of educational attainment on dementia risk. Annals of epidemiology. 2016;26(1):71-76.e3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688127/

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