June 24, 2003
Having years of schooling may afford some protection against the mind-robbing ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, results of a newly released study suggest. The findings were part of the long-running Religious Orders Study, an ongoing follow-up of aging and mental abilities among elderly Catholic nuns, priests and brothers. The evidence bolsters earlier findings that an advanced education, such as as college and graduate school, may protect against Alzheimer’s later in life.
One theory is that formal schooling builds up a rich network of connections between cells in the brain, or “brain reserve,” making the brain more flexible and adaptable. Even if a brain illness like dementia should strike and kill off brain cells in someone with a large “reserve,” the theory goes, enough healthy cells remain for learning and memory skills to function at a higher level.
In the current study, the brains of participants who had died were examined for signs of Alzheimer’s disease, such as the sticky plaques that choke off brain cells. Study volunteers were also categorized in terms of the years of schooling they had received, and all had undergone ongoing regular testing for thinking and memory skills. “As people moved up the educational ladder, the same density of brain plaques had less effect on cognitive test scores,” said study leader David A. Bennett, M.D, of Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. That is, a man or woman who had received a post-graduate degree did much better on memory and cognitive tests than someone who had received far fewers years of schooling, even if both of their brains showed the same amount of Alzheimer’s-related damage.
“These findings give us additional insight into the long-known but not well understood link between education and everyday memory and learning ability,” notes Dr. Neil Buckholtz, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s (NIA) Dementias of Aging Branch. “It may be that education permits the brain already affected by the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease to work around that damage and allow an individual to function at a higher level.”
Researchers from Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania reported the findings in the June 24, 2003 issue of the medical journal Neurology.
By Toby Bilanow, Medical Writer, for www.ALZinfo.org. The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Samuel E. Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board, Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.