Higher Education, Lower Alzheimer's Risk

Extra Schooling May Help You Dodge Alzheimer's Disease but Won't Slow Memory Loss Once It Starts

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 2, 2009 -- Having more education reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease but does not slow memory loss once it starts, says a new study.

Reporting in the Feb. 3 issue of Neurology, scientists say they found that education does not appear to protect against how fast people lose memory once forgetfulness begins.

"This is an interesting and important finding because scientists have long debated whether aging and memory loss tend to have a lesser effect on highly educated people," says study author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, with the Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "While education is associated with the memory's ability to function at a higher level, we found no link between higher education and how fast the memory loses that ability."

He and colleagues tested the thinking skills of 6,500 people from the Chicago area with an average age of 72 and varying levels of education.

The level of education of people in the study ranged from eight or fewer years of school to 16 or more years.

Interviews and tests about memory and thinking functions were given every three years, up to 14 years.

When the study started, people with more education were found to have better memory and thinking skills than those with lesser education.

The results remained the same regardless of other factors related to education, such as job status, race, and the effects of practice with the tests.

Further analysis, however, showed that the "rate of cognitive decline at average or high levels of education was slightly increased" during early years of follow-up study, but then decreased slightly later, compared to people with low levels of education.

"The results suggest that education is robustly associated with level of cognitive function, but not with rate of cognitive decline," they conclude.

SOURCES: News release, American Academy of Neurology. Wilson, R. Neurology, Feb. 3, 2009; vol 72: pp 460-465.

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