March 9, 2009
Completing high school, or having a college or graduate degree, is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's in old age. But once mental decline sets in, education does not appear to affect the rate of mental decline, a new study finds.
The study, of more than 6,000 seniors in Chicago, conducted by researchers at the Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush Medical School, assessed the mental abilities of older men and women with varying levels of education. Some had completed only eight or so years of schooling, while others had graduated from college and beyond. Most were in their 60s and 70s at the start of the study.
Over the next six or seven years, the study participants were screened regularly with memory tests and other exams to look for signs of fading memory and Alzheimer's disease.
The researchers found that overall, those with the most education had sharper memory and thinking skills than those who had the fewest years of schooling. This finding is consistent with earlier research, and fewer years of education is generally recognized as a risk factor for Alzheimer's.
But once mental decline set in, those who were highly educated did not decline any slower than the less educated seniors. The results were consistent regardless of other factors like race and practice taking mental tests.
"This is an interesting and important finding because scientists have long debated whether aging and memory loss tend to have a lesser affect on highly educated people," said study author Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., of Rush. "While education is associated with the memory's ability to function at a higher level, we found no link between higher education and how fast the memory loses that ability."
The findings appeared in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
R. S. Wilson, Ph.D., L. E. Hebert, Sc.D., P. A. Scherr, Sc.D., Ph.D., et al: "Educational Attainment and Cognitive Decline in Old Age." Neurology, Volume 72, pages 460-465, February 2, 2009.