New Study on Education and Alzheimer’s Contradicts Some Previous Research

  • New research is fine-tuning one older belief and standing another on its ear. In an article by HealthDay reporter Carolyn Colwell titled, "Education Doesn't Slow Alzheimer's Decline: Large, 14-year study finds no effect, contradicting previous research," several ideas once taken as fact are, at least for now, proven flawed or down right wrong.


    The study was conducted at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago. There are findings in this study that are to me, quite frankly, rather hard to distinguish from an earlier study. Older studies, such as the one I wrote about in, "More Education Means A Lesser Chance of Getting Alzheimer's, Dementia," showed that people with more education took longer to show symptoms of Alzheimer's.

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    The earlier study suggested that fewer people with higher education seemed to get Alzheimer's,  but it also speculated that more education perhaps "covered" symptoms for some people, thus the person's education kept the decline less obvious to observers.


    This new study says, "...(while) your rate of cognitive decline really doesn't depend on the number of years of schooling you've had.... more education ‘does give you the advantage of having a higher level of cognitive functioning in old age.'"


    Just how is this different than the older findings? It's rate of decline as opposed to just covering symptoms. This study checked more people, checked them more frequently (at three or more points along their decline vs. just twice, as in the previous study) and for a longer period of time. All of this, according to the new study, "permits separation of initial level of cognition from the rate of change."


    So, rate of decline seems to be the variable here. According to this study, having more education doesn't slow the rate, but gives you a higher level of functioning for a longer time period. The value the researchers see in this study is in therapy for people affected with Alzheimer's and even in the prevention of the disease.


    Another point made in the study is going to hurt those businesses selling brain games to aging boomers who hope to stave off Alzheimer's by keeping their brain nimble. Since the study doesn't show that higher levels of education can reduce the rate of cognitive decline, one researcher stated, "brain exercises later in life might not be helpful."


    Hmm, I just wrote, "Use It or Lose It: Games Help Keep the Brain Healthy," last month, in response to the deluge of brain games that are marketed to those of my, er, tender years.


    The study authors say that if more education "up front" means that a person can have Alzheimer's longer before becoming debilitated, that education could save money by cutting down on nursing home time. We'll see. To me, a non-scientific person, this is one more area that seems to be very tricky to pin down, and seems to have little to offer those who are at risk right now, or those who already have the disease.


    As with all studies, nearly all of us know exceptions to the rule. Also, the chance of further tweaking and even totally flip-flops, is rather large. Many readers have commented that the money spent on some of these studies could be better spent on other types of Alzheimer's research. I often agree.


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    However, watching the studies pile up is interesting, as we all hope that one of these days, all of this information will bond together and form a real knowledge base that can help science move closer to prevention, cure, and a better quality of life for those who already have this disease. Let's hope the researchers are spending the precious Alzheimer's dollars in the right place.


    To learn more about Carol, please go to or

Published On: February 05, 2009