Higher Levels of Education Continue to be Found to Protect Brain

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Many institutions of learning suggest that we should “invest in ourselves” through education. Most often, we think of that investment as being one that will help us make a bigger salary or get a better job. While in the midst of classes, we rarely think that we may be doing something that will protect our brains against dementia.

    However, many studies have built a really strong case that higher levels of education strengthen the brain; these pathways then can slow down the onslaught of dementia.  A new one out of France just reinforces these findings.

    In this study, researchers looked at the pattern of cognitive decline among people who have different educational levels. The participants included 442 people who were cognitively normal at the start of the study. Of these, 171 had low level of formal education (which was defined as having no schooling or not completing primary school) while 271 had attained a higher level of education (defined as having at least a primary-school diploma after six years of education).  These participants were, on average, 86 years of age. The researchers visited all the participants regularly over the 20-year duration of the study in order to assess a variety of cognitive and physical measures.

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    The researchers found that participants who had higher levels of education began showing the first signs of cognitive decline through targeted cognitive assessments about 15 years prior to being diagnosed with dementia. However, during the first 7-8 years of this period the participants’ performance of activities of daily living and global cognition didn’t show any change that indicated a decline. The participants also didn’t complain about having memory lapses. It wasn’t until the later portion of this 15-year time period that these participants started to experience difficulties with activities of daily learning and global cognitive abilities, depressive symptoms and a realization that they were experiencing cognitive issues.

     In comparison, participants who had lower levels of education started showing signs of cognitive decline seven years prior to the diagnosis of dementia. Furthermore, the participants who had lower levels of education experienced one single period of decline that lasted around seven years. This decline affected specific as well as global cognitive function and the participants’ ability to handle activities of daily living.

    So what does this mean for you? Here’s what I’d suggest:

    • Let’s start with the youngest generation. If you have kids or grandkids, I’d really encourage you to focus on reinforcing the importance of getting a good education through formal schooling. This stance can help them not only succeed professionally, but as evidenced in this study also can offer protection to their brains when they are much older.
    • Go back to school. The intellectual stimulation of attending a class – whether it’s a GED class, a community education class, or a graduate school class – can definitely get your brain buzzing.  Once you’ve left the classroom, it can be daunting to put yourself back in the position of a student, but doing so definitely exercises your brain.
    • Get a study group! You don’t have to join a formal education program. Instead, you can try to stretch yourself through regular participation in activities and hobbies. Participate in a book group. Get involved in a quilting group.  Join the genealogical society in your area. Doing these types of activities not only stretches your brain, but also helps you socialize, which also has been found to be important in fighting Alzheimer’s.
    • Teach someone else. By mentoring someone – whether it’s a middle school student or a new businessperson – in something helps deepen your knowledge and continues to build those brain synapsis.
    • Stretch yourself! – My mother always was doing crossword puzzles as a way to stop dementia. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I think she was exercising the wrong part of the brain (for her). She once was a high school English/history teacher so words and language came easily for her. I think that by exercising multiple parts of the brain, you can build up areas that will help you keep your cognitive function. Try learning another language, do Sudoku, learn to paint, plan trips (and then travel to new places) – in other words, get out of your comfort zone. You’ll enjoy life more and also increases the staying power of your brain in the fact of cognitive decline.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

  • Amieva, H., et al. (2014). Compensatory mechanisms in higher-educated subjects with Alzheimer’s disease: a study of 20 years of cognitive decline. Brain.

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    Lukits, A. (2014). Downsides of mistaken penicillin allergy. The Wall Street Journal.

Published On: April 01, 2014