Spending more time in school may not slow memory loss

06 February 2019

Neurology: Education and cognitive reserve in old age

Researchers in the US have found that the length of time people spend in education is not associated to their rate of memory decline in dementia or the presence of key disease markers in the brain. The research findings have been published today (Wednesday 6 February) in the scientific journal, Neurology.

The researchers looked at two groups of study volunteers involved in two separate long-term trials and who had been followed for an average of eight years. Researchers split the volunteers, who had spent an average of 16.3 years in education, into three group based on the time spent in education.

The scientists measured several aspects of cognitive ability in volunteers and looked at the brains of those who died during follow-up for ten key markers of disease in the brain.

They found that the number of years people spend in education is not associated with the onset of dementia, rate of memory and thinking decline or to the majority of disease markers measured in the brain.

However, researchers found that the number of years spent in education is linked to the initial level of global cognition before old age. They also found that microscopic damage to the brain’s blood supply, was linked to lower education levels.

Dr Sara Imarisio, Head of Research, at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“Evidence suggests that education could increase cognitive reserve, a type of resilience that allows people to function for longer before showing dementia symptoms. This study still supports the idea that more years spent in education increases overall thinking skills but does not find that education slows the rate of memory loss in older people.

“While this adds to the growing picture of research into early life risk factors, most of the study volunteers spent a relatively long time in education and a wider study looking at people more reflective of the varying education levels of the population may shed more light on the interplay between education and dementia risk.

“It is difficult to measure the extent to which individual lifestyle factors contribute to our overall dementia risk. Today Alzheimer’s Research UK has published the Dementia Attitudes Monitor revealing that only half of UK adults are able to name one single key risk factor for dementia. With a third of cases of dementia thought to be influenced by factors in our control to change, the findings of this report highlight a clear need for better awareness of dementia prevention.

“The best current evidence indicates, not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, only drinking within recommended guidelines, eating a balanced diet, and staying both physically and mentally active are all linked to better brain health as we age.”