Education can guard against Alzheimer’s disease

Highly-educated people are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a study shows.

The theory that education protects against Alzheimer’s has been strengthened by new research from the University of Cambridge, funded by the EU. The study is published in the British Medical Journal.

According to the researchers, an individual with more cognitive reserve - from higher education or intelligence — uses more efficient processing pathways and can withstand more Alzheimer’s before the initial clinical signs and symptoms emerge.

Lead author Hugh Markus, of the department of clinical neurosciences at Cambridge, said: “Many studies have shown that certain risk factors are more common in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but determining whether these factors actually cause Alzheimer’s is more difficult.

“For example, many studies have shown that the more years spent in full-time education, the lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. But it is difficult to unravel whether this is an effect of education improving brain function, or whether it’s the case that people who are more educated tend to come from more wealthy backgrounds and, therefore, have a reduction in other risk factors that cause Alzheimer’s disease.”

Prof Markus led a study to unravel these factors using a technique known as ‘Mendelian randomisation’. This involves looking at an individual’s DNA and comparing genes associated with environmental risk factors — for example, genes linked to educational attainment or to smoking — and seeing which of these genes are also associated with Alzheimer’s disease. If a gene is associated with both, then it provides strong evidence that this risk factor causes the onset of the disease.

As part of a project known as CoStream, researchers studied genetic variants that increase the risk of a variety of different environmental risk factors to see if they were more common in 17,000 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They found the strongest association with genetic variants that predict higher educational attainment.

“This provides further strong evidence that education is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” says co-author Susanna Larsson, now based at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

“It suggests that improving education could have a significant effect on reducing the number of people who suffer from this devastating disease.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia. Its chief hallmark is the build of ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ of misshapen proteins which lead to the gradual death of brain cells, leading to memory loss and disorientation.

The causes of Alzheimer’s are largely unknown and attempts, to develop drug treatments to halt or reverse its effects, have been disappointing. This has led to increasing interest in whether it is possible to reduce the number of cases of the disease by tackling risk factors that can be modified.

Sharing stories of life with dementia

The Alzheimer Society of Ireland has launched a series of online videos showing people with dementia sharing their life stories in order to combat misconceptions surrounding the condition.

The videos were of people with dementia and their carers that were recently recorded before a live audience at the AlzTalks event at the Cork Arts Theatre.

Dementia advocates Sean Toomey, 82, from Bishopstown, Cork, and Michael Higgins, 62, from Blarney, Co Cork, were among those who spoke about their own experiences of the condition.

Mr Toomey, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after a long illness in 2015, offered advice for anyone with a diagnosis.

Joan Toomey, Michael Higgins, Sean Toomey, Helen Rochford Brennan, Catherine Kennedy, Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald, Sean Donal O’Shea, and Jon Hinchliffe at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland’s AlzTalks event in Cork.

“If you have dementia, or your family member does, my advice would be to keep active, stay a part of the local community,” he said.

“Join an advocate support group and don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. I also believe that it’s good to be open about having dementia — I always tell people that I have the condition. I don’t believe in hiding it away.”

Mr Higgins, meanwhile, who was joined on stage by ASI’s southern region operation’s co-ordinator Jon Hinchcliffe, spoke highly about ASI’s Bessboro Day Care Centre in Cork which has helped him to come to terms with his diagnosis.

“For me, when I first attended Bessboro, it was an outlet for me, because prior to that, when I started getting dementia, I was asking ridiculous questions at home and it very stressful for my family but, by going to Bessboro, it became more clear to me what was happening and I was able to cope better with my diagnosis,” he said.

Mr Higgins began singing after his diagnosis and can be found entertaining the others in Bessboro on a daily basis. He performed a wonderful rendition of Michael Bublé’s ‘Lost’ on the night.

Other speakers included Helen Rochford Brennan, from Sligo, who shared her insight on living a good life post-diagnosis with appropriate supports and services. Former carers Sean Donal O’Shea from Co Kerry, and Catherine Kennedy, from Tipperary, recounted their experiences of caring for loved ones with dementia.

The Alzheimer Society of Ireland head of advocacy and public affairs, Tina Leonard said: “We are very excited to finally launch these videos which detail the very personal stories of each advocate; from those who have dementia and those who have cared for a loved one with dementia. The general public needs to hear about the personal stories of people with dementia and their carers to help bring the subject of dementia, which is often not spoken about in Ireland, into the public domain.”

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