There is little that is known for sure in the realm of Alzheimer’s research, and what we do know seems like it’s always changing. Case in point: It used to be that having an education was considered a defense against Alzheimer’s. But new research is showing that presumption might not be the case.
The idea is that the more education a person has, the more buildup of cognitive reserve they can access. In other words, cognitive decline happens more slowly in people who start at a higher point because they have more room to fall. For example, people who do well on cognitive tests might not be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s even if they do have the disease, because they haven’t reached a certain level of impairment, or they can compensate for cognitive decline with systems that rely on other parts of the brain.
But a new study published in Neurology that followed almost 3,000 people for eight years has found that being more educated did not protect participants from decline once it began. Highly educated individuals did perform better on certain tests, but their progression was not any slower than people without many degrees behind their names. It also didn’t prevent people from a delay in developing the disease.
“The strengths of this analysis include that it was based on more participants who were observed for a longer period of time than previous analyses,” said study author Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “It’s possible that the contribution of education to cognitive reserve depends on other factors, such as life experiences or biological factors, but these results did not show a relationship between a higher level of education and a slower rate of decline of thinking and memory skills or a later onset of the accelerated decline that happens as dementia starts.”
Previous studies have found that education is one of the best protectors against Alzheimer’s disease, though it’s never been clear exactly how the two are correlated. They hypothesized it was the cognitive reserve of highly educated people that allowed them to live with the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s without the symptoms of memory loss.
But the fact that this study found a lack of evidence for the education-dementia connection doesn’t mean that pursuing higher education does nothing for the brain, said study authors.
“This finding that education apparently contributes little to cognitive reserve is surprising given that education affects cognitive growth and changes in brain structure,” Wilson said.
The researchers point out that learning itself is still a valuable protective factor against neurodegeneration.
“Formal education typically ends decades before old age begins, so late-life activities involving thinking and memory skills such as learning another language or other experiences such as social activities, cognitively demanding work and having a purpose in life may also play a role in cognitive reserve that may be more important than remote experiences such as schooling,” said Wilson.
Harvard’s Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., told Being Patient that learning new things, especially in old age, is crucial for retaining brain connections.
“When you learn new things, you make new synapses,” said Tanzi. “You also strengthen the synapses and pathways you already have because learning is always based on association. Anything new has to be connected to what you already know, so when you make new synapses, you connect them with the old synapses and strengthen those.”
“I tell people that when they’re going to retire, they shouldn’t just think about their financial reserve, but also their synaptic reserve—so they can enjoy their money,” Tanzi offered.