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Back to school—Does education impact risk of Alzheimer’s?

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In the fight against Alzheimer’s we have different ways to protect brain health and delay dementia. These include regular aerobic exercise, eating a low-inflammatory diet like the Mediterranean or MIND diet, treating conditions that harm the brain such as diabetes and hypertension, staying socially active, achieving higher education, and being a life-long learner.

A study published recently in the Journal Neurology made headlines when the authors claimed that perhaps education does not protect against dementia after all, contrary to most research on the topic.

Do education and cognitive activity lower risk? The issue is that our body of research on this topic is observational as opposed to experimental, since setting up an experiment that restricts education to half of a randomized group would be unethical — we are left with observational studies which cannot establish cause and effect, are prone to error and are open for interpretation. A criticism of this study is that low education was not well represented, meaning the group may have been too highly educated to find differential risk of dementia based on years of education.

Many other observational studies have found reduced risk of dementia via higher education and cognitive activities. In fact, studies have shown that going to college cuts the extra risk associated with carrying APOE e4, a gene that increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Further, studies have found that cognitive activities from early, mid- and late-life are associated with unique contributions to cognitive reserve.

While observational research alone can’t resolve this question, achieving higher education, helping children and adolescents who struggle scholastically, and maintaining an active cognitive life throughout life remain likely important ways to maintain brain health and delay dementia onset.

What kinds of activities are best? Choose activities that are continually challenging and continually novel, like a musical instrument or foreign language. Studies also show that in addition to challenge and novelty, adding a social element may increase the bang for your buck!

To learn more about the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, or for an appointment with a neurologists specializing in brain health and dementia prevention, visit www.northshore.org/brainhealth.

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