October 22, 2007
Want to keep the memory sharp into old age? One way to increase the chances may be to stay in school. A study out of Finland finds that teens who don't finish high school are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease many years later than those who get their diplomas and go on to further study.
Researchers factored in lifestyle habits and demographic characteristics such as income, occupation, physical activity, and smoking. Still, they found, the fewer years of schooling, the more likely someone would develop Alzheimer's late in life. The findings were reported in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Anyone can get Alzheimer's, and advancing age is the most prominent risk factor for the disease. Still, lack of formal education has long been recognized as a risk factor for the disease. This study provides further evidence for the importance of formal schooling in girding the brain against the ravages of Alzheimer's.
Finnish researchers followed 1,388 participants through middle age and late life, for an average of 21 years. The participants, ranging in age from 65 to 79, were divided into three groups, according to how much schooling they had received. The "low education" groups had received five or fewer years of education, the "medium" group six to eight years, and the "high" group nine or more years. These groups corresponded with the Finnish equivalent of elementary, middle, and high school.
As a group, people with a medium education level had a 40 percent lower risk of developing dementia than those who had attended school for the fewest years. Those who completed high school had an 80 percent lower risk than those with an elementary school education.
"Generally speaking, people with low education levels seem to lead unhealthier lifestyles, which could suggest the two work concurrently to contribute to dementia or Alzheimer's disease," said study author Tiia Ngandu, M.D., Ph.D., of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Kuopio in Finland. "But our results showed a person's education predicted dementia on its own," since the researchers controlled for such factors as smoking and lifestyle. Still, it could turn out that people who stay in school longer have other qualities that reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. So, it remains unknown whether the act of staying in school will reduce a person's risk of Alzheimer's.
"It may be that highly educated people have a greater cognitive reserve, which is the brain's ability to maintain function in spite of damage," Dr. Ngandu continued. A larger brain reserve, he explained, "makes it easier to postpone the negative effects of dementia. Additionally, unhealthy lifestyles may independently contribute to the depletion of this reserve."
According to the brain reserve hypothesis, stimulating activities such as learning and education early in life help build a complex network of neural connections within the brain. If Alzheimer's strikes late in life and brain cells die, enough neural connections remain to help stave off memory loss and other symptoms of the disease.
The hypothesis also helps explain why many experts recommend life-long learning and stimulation to help keep the brain young. Word games and crossword puzzles, for example, may act similarly to help build up brain reserve. Read a book or learn a new language, and turn off the TV, to further stimulate and maintain the brain.
At the least, such activities will enhance your quality of life. And they may do much more than that.
To learn more, visit www.ALZinfo.org.
T. Ngandu, MD, PhD, E. von Strauss, PhD, E.L. Helkala, PhD, et al: "Education and Dementia: What Lies Behind the Association?" Neurology, October 1, 2007, Volume 69, pages 1442-1450.