Can Education Reduce Alzheimer's Risk? Study Finds Link Between Dementia And High School Diploma


Findings of a new study suggest that increasing levels of education and good cardiovascular health may help reduce odds of developing dementia, a condition afflicting about 47.5 million people worldwide.

For the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Feb. 11, Sudha Seshadri, from Boston University School of Medicine, and colleagues looked at the heart and brain health data of 5,205 people who have been part of the Framingham Heart Study and found that the incidence of dementia in the U.S. has significantly dropped since mid-1970s.

The subjects experienced about 20 percent drop in the risk of developing dementia and the age at which the brain disease sets in increased from 80 in the late 1970s to 85 in recent years.

The study likewise offered clues that can help prevent or delay dementia. Education and heart health, for instance, appeared to be factors in the decline in dementia cases albeit these two did not account for all drop in dementia cases.

Seshadri and colleagues found that the significant decline in risk for dementia only occurred in people who have at least a high school diploma, who from the year 1975, saw up to 44 percent drop in dementia cases. 

"Relative to the incidence during the first epoch, the incidence declined by 22%, 38%, and 44% during the second, third, and fourth epochs, respectively," the researchers wrote in their study. "This risk reduction was observed only among persons who had at least a high school diploma."

The researchers also observed an improvement in cardiovascular health that is in line with the drop in dementia risk. Improved heart health efforts could be making a difference. 

"This does add evidence that controlling cardiovascular risk factors and increasing levels of education are good for your risk of developing dementia over time," said Keith Fargo, from the Alzheimer's Association.

Fargo said that having at least a high school education appeared to have helped seniors, which supports what is known as the cognitive reserve concept.

"The essential idea behind it is the more cognitively [mentally] healthy you are to begin with, the better able your brain is to withstand the slings and arrows of aging," he said adding that formal education could be very important to brain health as a person ages.

An earlier study has found that the onset of cognitive decline in people who had more education years and engaged in brain simulating jobs is delayed by five years compared with their counterparts who had less education.

 Seshadri, however said that education could also indicate an individual's economic and social status and those who have higher education are more capable of getting good care.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia. In 2015, there are about 5.1 million people in the U.S. who suffer from the disease. America's aging population raises concern of dementia cases increasing over the next few decades. The incidence of the disease is expected to triple to 13.8 million by 2050 unless a medical breakthrough that could prevent or treat the disease could be found.

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