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Back to school, Gran: more education lowers risk of dementia

Researchers in Finland and the UK have established that people who continue their education have a lower risk of developing dementia in the future. The results, published in the journal Brain, are an outcome of the ECLIPSE ('Epidemiological clinicopathological studies in Europ...

Researchers in Finland and the UK have established that people who continue their education have a lower risk of developing dementia in the future. The results, published in the journal Brain, are an outcome of the ECLIPSE ('Epidemiological clinicopathological studies in Europe) collaboration, which is supported in part by a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship. Several past studies have shown that spending more time in education - which is linked to higher socioeconomic status and a healthier lifestyle - lowers one's risk of developing dementia. However, it has been unclear whether this is because education protects the brain against dementia-related pathologies, or whether more education gives individuals the mental reserves they need to cope with such neurological changes. To answer this and other important questions, the ECLIPSE researchers analysed data from 872 people participating in three large-scale studies of ageing and dementia. One of these was a European brain-donation programme. The studies included the UK's Medical Research Council Cognitive Function and Ageing Study and Cambridge City over-75s cohort study as well as Finland's Vantaa 85+ study. In each of the studies, participants were interviewed at regular intervals (between one and seven years) following baseline surveys carried out between 1985 and 1993. The questionnaires were designed to highlight signs of dementia but the participants also answered questions about socioeconomic factors, including education. In all of the studies, brain tissue samples were assessed for neuropathology - the analysis was carried out without knowledge of the person's clinical dementia status. The researchers looked for plaques, tangles and lesions associated with dementia, and scored them according to severity. This data was then compared with that gleaned from the questionnaires. The appearance of brain pathologies was similar in all groups. The data established that, rather than having a physically protective effect against brain pathologies, more education helped individuals cope with such degenerative changes in the brain. Those who had experienced more education early in life had less risk of developing clinical dementia later in life. 'Previous research has shown that there is not a one-to-one relationship between being diagnosed with dementia during life and changes seen in the brain at death,' explained Dr Hannah Keage of the University of Cambridge in the UK. 'One person may show lots of pathology in their brain while another shows very little, yet both may have had dementia. Our study shows education in early life appears to enable some people to cope with a lot of changes in their brain before showing dementia symptoms.' The findings highlight the important contribution of education to public health, particularly in light of Europe's ageing population. 'Education is known to be good for population health and equity,' said Professor Carol Brayne of the University of Cambridge, who led the research. 'This study provides strong support for investment in early life factors which should have an impact on society and the whole lifespan. This is hugely relevant to policy decisions about the importance of resource allocation between health and education.'

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