How College Education Affects Alzheimer’s Risk

By | April 17th, 2018

New research shows that educational attainment could help protect people from cognitive decline.

It’s not just any one thing that causes Alzheimer’s disease, but rather a combination of factors that range from possessing certain variants of genes to habits like smoking and diet, according to science. A new study suggests another one of these factors is college education. Research led by the University of Southern California has found that education can give people an advantage in their later years, helping them not only keep dementia at bay, but also live longer.

The study examined 10,374 participants in 2000 and 9,995 in 2010 who were 65 and older. Participants were interviewed and given cognitive tests. Researchers separated their results into four categories: those who did not complete high school, those with a high school degree, those with some college, and those who completed a college degree or more.

Researchers found that people with a college education had healthy cognition into their late 80s. In comparison, those who didn’t complete high school had healthy cognition up until their 70s. Lifespan also increased while the study took place between 2000 and 2010.  The lifespan with good cognition of those who had graduated from college increased by an average of 1.51 years for men and 1.79 years for women. The increase in lifespan with good cognition was much smaller among those who did not complete high school — 0.66 years for men and 0.27 years for women.

“This association between the increase in college attainment and the decline in dementia prevalence is good news for people who have completed some higher education or earned a degree, but what does it mean for people who are less educated?” said Eileen M. Crimmins, the study’s lead author and a University Professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “They are more likely to develop dementia, and live longer with it.”

And it isn’t just college education that affects dementia risk. Another study from the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University found that African-American children who received better education during childhood grew up to have a lower risk of developing dementia—an especially important finding considering African-Americans are nearly twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Education may also help a person overcome other lifestyle tendencies associated with dementia, like poor eating habits.

“Low education can be a marker for adverse environmental influences in childhood such as the use of home remedies, poor diet, mistrust of the medical system and religious or cultural beliefs on seeking health care,” said study co-author Valerie Smith-Gamble, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist. “Higher educational attainment may alter these negative influences of childhood by lifestyles changes such as healthy food choices and exercise, and the establishment of trust of the medical system. It is a well-known fact that early diagnosis and treatment of most medical conditions are beneficial. As educational attainment and health literacy improve, diabetes and other vascular risk factors are being diagnosed and treated earlier.”

This study was published in the Journals of Gerontology.

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