Does my education level affect my risk of Alzheimer's disease?

Epidemiologists have found that a disproportionate number of people with Alzheimer's disease are poorly educated. The reason is unknown, but it raises intriguing questions. If education causes such beneficial changes, it's possible that an educated person could lose a certain number of neurons without a noticeable decline in mental ability, while an uneducated person who lost the same number would suffer mental deficits. In effect, education might delay the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.

Research supports this theory, which some experts now call neurocognitive reserve. Imaging studies of people with the same degree of Alzheimer's symptoms have shown that the most educated people had less brain activity and blood flow to the brain than the least educated people. In other words, it took more brain damage to cause symptoms in the people who'd had the most schooling. Similarly, autopsies of participants in another study show that among people who had the same degree of brain damage from Alzheimer's, the most educated people experienced the least severe symptoms.

An intriguing -- though preliminary -- study, reported in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), linked lower levels of two beta-amyloid biomarkers in blood to more rapid cognitive decline over nine years among 1,000 people without dementia. Participants who had a sixth-grade education or less had greater declines than those with at least a high school diploma. This suggests education may help slow, or weaken, the effects of some biological changes that pave the path toward dementia. Of course, it's also possible that less education might put people at a disadvantage on cognitive tests used by researchers.

Still, socioeconomic factors may be important, too. People who grow up in poverty are likely to be poorly educated. They might also have dietary deficiencies or exposures to more environmental toxins that could leave them vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease later in life. The interaction among these social, economic, and educational factors is complex, further muddying the waters.

Many researchers believe that education level is less important in maintaining a healthy brain than the habit of staying mentally active as you age.

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