Dementia and Education Level: A Difficult Problem to Solve

Dementia and Education Level: A Difficult Problem to Solve

Dementia and Education Level: A Difficult Problem to Solve

The global population forecast is estimated to reach about 8.6 billion people by the year 2050. This, of course, means that the more people there are on the planet, the more resources that will be required for medical treatment (to name just one area of need). Additionally, populations that are already aging now will require more care as the years go on. While the search for treatments and cures for serious diseases is still underway, there are also researchers exploring the potential for preventative measures. One example where this topic comes up for an urgent disorder is for dementia, or a disease that is characterized by neurological deterioration in old age. Such diseases include Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body Dementia, and Parkinson’s.

While these diseases still pose a significant challenge for those living with them, as well as for researchers attempting to find a cure, work is being done on the socio-economic factors related to the disorder. One topic that has come up is the relationship between educational attainment and the likelihood of developing dementia in old age. The main question is: Does education level decrease the likelihood of developing dementia? The answer is not simple, but some research has discovered that the answer is: “It seems possible.”

In 2010, a study at the University of Cambridge suggested that the level of one’s education is said to decreases the likelihood of developing dementia in old age.[1] Other studies have also suggested that college education seems to provide a greater likelihood of having good cognition in older age compared to populations who did not complete high school. For example, college educated individuals had an extended period of good cognition that lasted into their 80s, while those who did not complete high school had good cognition up until their 70s.[2] Why might this be the case? The answer is, again, complicated.

Researcher, Dr. Kenneth Langa, at the University of Michigan has put forward a potential explanation. On the one hand, getting an education challenges your brain in different ways and, when your brain is challenged, it gets rewired differently, giving your brain a “cognitive reserve.” This means that your brain may develop a resilience to degeneration because it is better handling potential burdens that can damage the brain over time than those who do not possess the same kind of “cognitive reserve.”[3] However, this is only half of what may be going on. Dr. Langa adds that receiving a college education, on average, gives people access to better jobs, higher pay, and access to different neighborhoods where the quality of life is better. People may be experiencing less stress and have access to more health resources, in turn, determining their overall health into old age. These socio-economic factors can also be connected to the likelihood of developing dementia in old age. But, the answer is still murky. As the search for the cure rages on, other research is still being done in order to find ways to prevent dementia in the future.

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[1]  Brayne, Carole, et al. “Education, the brain, and dementia: neuroprotection or compensation?” Brain 133 (2010): 2210-2216.

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