Education May Cut Dementia Risk, Study Finds

Posted on February 25, 2016

Photo: flickr

The study, published on the 10th Feb. 2016 in The New England Journal of Medicine, provides the strongest evidence to date that a more educated population and better cardiovascular health are contributing to a decline in new dementia cases over time, or at least helping more people stave off dementia for longer.

The study participants were largely white and suburban, so results may not apply to all races and ethnicities. Still, a recent study showed a similar trend among African-Americans in Indianapolis, finding that new cases of dementia declined from 1992 to 2001. The 2001 participants had more education, and although they had more cardiovascular problems than the 1992 participants, those problems were receiving more medical treatment.

In any event, in the next few decades, the actual number of dementia patients will increase because baby boomers are aging and living longer.

“You don’t want to give the impression that the Alzheimer’s or dementia problem is disappearing — it’s not at all,” said Dallas Anderson, a program director on dementia at the National Institute on Aging, one of two agencies that financed the study. “The numbers are still going up because of the aging population.”

Still, he added, the new research shows that “what happens in a person’s life becomes important.”

“It’s not just: ‘Oh, it’s in your genes. You’re going to get it,’” he said. “You can take steps to postpone the disease.”

“There’s more studies suggesting that the risk is going down and we might have to rethink some of the projections of how big a problem dementia will be 30 years from now,” said Dr. Kenneth Langa, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan.Results like this suggest, he said, “that even without a big breakthrough in medication or a vaccine that would stop the Alzheimer’s process, that we can do things that lower the risk of dementia long-term.”

Significantly, the decline in new dementia cases, or incidence, occurred only with people who had at least a high school diploma. High school graduates were also the only ones whose cardiovascular health, except for obesity and diabetes, improved steadily over the same 40 years.

“Whether education is beneficial in itself or whether education is a marker for other things like poverty and unhealthy lifestyle, we didn’t parse that out,” said Dr. Sudha Seshadri, a neurologist at Boston University Medical Center and a senior investigator with the Framingham Heart Study.

“We find the more education the better,” said Dr. Langa, whose study indicated that people in 2010 averaged almost a year more education than those in 2000 and that education explained about one-half the decline in dementia in that decade.

There are many theories about why education may help stave off dementia, including that it leads to better economic opportunity, which can propel healthier habits and better access to medical care. Another theory is that learning generates more neural connections, allowing brains to compensate longer when memory and cognitive functions falter.

Category(s):Aging & Geriatric Issues, Cognitive Problems Amnesia / Dementia

Source material from The New England Journal of Medicine

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