One of the most dreaded degenerative diseases of aging is Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia in which the victim’s mind slowly loses all function. Approximately 5% of the elderly population suffers from this condition, and the number of Alzheimer’s patients is expected to triple over the next thirty years. However, research indicates that people with higher levels of education are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

The first study on this issue, which came out of Finland, was originally published in October of 2007. The researchers followed nearly 1400 subjects over a twenty-year period, categorizing them having a low, intermediate, or high levels of education. The study concluded that people with more education were half as likely to develop dementia later in life. Although less-educated people may make poor lifestyle choices that affect their overall health, the Finnish study actually showed a direct correlation between education levels and the risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease. One of the researchers suggested that

“highly educated people have a greater cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s ability to maintain function in spite of damage, thus making it easier to postpone the negative effects of dementia.”

The results of the Finnish research have been supported by more recent study, published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. However, those results indicated that while having a higher level of education may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, once the disease develops, such patients may suffer a more rapid decline. Dr. Nicolaos Scarmeas says this may be due to a factor known as “cognitive reserve.” Patients who are more educated may retain a larger number of healthy synapses or neurons, which can make brain function more efficiently – for awhile. However, according to the published study, “when the pathological burden becomes more severe and widespread, sufficient neural substrate is no longer available and a faster decline may ensue.”

The researchers also acknowledge that their diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was made under clinical conditions, and that subjects’ dementia may have been due to other factors. They add that there is a possibility that “education is just a surrogate for some other factor that is not included in the models and is truly associated with faster rates of cognitive decline.”

In the meantime, it never hurts to undertake more educational challenges. Numerous studies over the years have shown that challenging one’s brain by learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge at any age can help to keep the mind sharp.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.