Education increases ability to cope with dementia, study shows | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 11.08.2010
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Education increases ability to cope with dementia, study shows

Scientists have puzzled over why people with more education suffer less from dementia. A new study shows the brains of people who attend school longer compensate better for conditions associated with old-age dementia.

Senior citizens in a university classroom

An extra year of education can cut the risk of suffering from dementia by up to 11 percent

Several studies over the last 10 years have shown that the longer people stay in school the less likely they are to develop signs of dementia in old age, but the explanation of why this is the case has been unclear.

Older people with higher levels of education cope better with the damage to the brain that is associated with old age, according to a report published last month in the journal Brain.

A team of British and Finnish researchers examined the brains of 872 people who took part in three ageing studies and found that the more educated test subjects suffered fewer outward signs of dementia than less educated subjects, regardless of the actual extent a disease had affected them, according to Hannah Keage of the University of Cambridge's Institute of Public Health.

"Those with longer education had exactly the same pathology, or damage the brain, as those with low education," said Kaege, who is also a co-author of the report. "They were just able to compensate or cope with that pathology before expressing their syndrome."

Brain scans

The diseases that cause dementia equally affect people regardless of their education

Education buffers

While people's brains may indeed be damaged by dementia, they do not show outward signs of the illness and can continue their lives normally.

"It may be that more education actually does teach the brain to do various things in different ways and that there is a cognitive reserve there that's buffering those with higher education if they loose some abilities," Keage added.

How the brain manages to bypass damage associated with old age remains the topic for future studies, the report said, but added that education is one of the factors. An overall healthy diet and lifestyle also appear to be factors in lowering the risk of suffering from the signs of dementia.

"You can do things to modify how at risk you are to dementia, and there are things you can do throughout your life to change your risk," Keage said. "It's certain that education in early life - primary school, secondary school and any university - will reduce your dementia risk."

The researchers have said that risk of developing dementia decreases by up to 11 percent for each year of additional education.

Dementia is associated with impaired cognition and functional disability. Alzheimer's disease is one of the most well-known types of dementia, but there are many others, including Vascular dementia and Lewy body dementia.

Author: Lars Bevanger (sms)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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