Studies link formal education to reduced risk of Alzheimer's
The benefits of getting a good education may go beyond landing a good job, and continue to pay off long after retirement. Evidence has shown that formal education, like high school and college, may reduce a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Research published in 2020 by The Lancet Commission that examined dementia interventions found 7% of worldwide dementia cases could be prevented by increasing early-life education. The study found higher childhood education levels and higher lifelong educational attainment could reduce dementia risk. Exactly how education helps is a mystery, but researchers have several theories.
Education expands your mind
Scientists believe the intense, structured learning obtained through formal education could increase “cognitive reserve,” which is the brain’s ability to resist and compensate for damage. A person with high cognitive reserve could be better positioned to deal with the damaging effects of Alzheimer’s in the brain than someone with lower reserve.
“The brain is like a muscle; the more the brain is used, the stronger it becomes,” says Ozioma Okonkwo, Ph.D., associate professor at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.
A study co-authored by Okonkwo and published in JAMA Neurology
in 2015 showed that older adults who completed at least 16 years of education — and therefore were considered to have higher than average cognitive reserve — had less evidence of Alzheimer’s biomarkers in their cerebrospinal fluid than people with fewer years of education. The research suggests that formal education may protect the brain from developing Alzheimer’s, while also allowing those with the disease to mentally function longer and “better compensate for any cognitive hits,” Okonkwo says. More research is needed to prove the link.
Another theory suggests that although education might not directly change the brain, it is often associated with a higher socioeconomic status and quality of life that helps keep people healthy and lowers dementia risk.
Education can impact the type of job a person has, the environment they live in, the quality of food they can eat and the health care they receive. A combination of these factors over time may add up to higher or lower Alzheimer’s risk.
“It may be this whole host of factors that may not have a direct impact on the brain, but overall enhance your health in a way to protect you and reduce your risk of developing the disease,” says Miguel Arce Renteria, Ph.D., associate research scientist and clinical neuropsychologist at the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, located at Columbia University.
Quality and quantity
While many studies have focused on the benefits of high school and college education, other studies have shown that even the basic act of learning to read and write may also lower dementia risk.
Research published in Neurology
in 2019 showed that illiterate study participants were almost three times more likely to have dementia compared to literate participants, and twice as likely to eventually develop dementia.
The study illustrates how important early life experiences are to the brain, and how missing those opportunities can impact health later in life, says Arce Renteria, the study’s lead author.
Researchers have found it is not just the quantity of education that may lower dementia risk, but also the quality. Recently, Arce Renteria co-led another study examining if formal education reduced dementia risk across different racial and ethnic groups. The study found education protected White Americans at higher rates than Black and Hispanic Americans — likely due to a difference in the quality of education they received, Arce Renteria says.
Researchers are exploring how to prevent Alzheimer's. While prevention has no definitive answers, research has shown that we can take action to reduce our risk of developing it.
“If somebody was Black and went to high school in the segregated South, their quality of education is not the same as those people who went to school in the North,” Arce Renteria says.
“Even today, across the country — rural, urban — education quality differs a lot. It is important to make sure we can optimize the quality of people’s education early on, across the board, so that hopefully everyone can benefit and see a cascade of changes throughout their life.”
Never stop learning
The majority of dementia risk studies have examined the benefits of obtaining education early in life. But Okonkwo says some studies have shown that learning new skills and working in jobs that are cognitively complex in mid and late life could also help protect the brain. For example, a 2015 study co-authored by Okonkwo found middle-aged adults who worked in mentally demanding occupations — especially dynamic jobs requiring frequent interaction and socialization with people — had higher cognitive reserve.
While the perfect equation for reducing your risk of dementia is still being determined, combining formal education with other potential risk reduction factors — like managing blood pressure and getting exercise — could have the biggest benefit for adults, Arce Renteria says.