EDUCATION improves a person’s ability to cope with the physical effects of dementia, research has shown.
People who go on to university or college after leaving school appear to be less affected by brain changes associated with dementia than those who cease education early, say scientists.
But their brains are just as likely to suffer the neurological break down that gives rise to the disease which causes memory loss and confused thinking.
How more educated people are better able to withstand the brain damage linked to dementia remains a mystery.
Over the past decade, research has consistently shown that the more time a person spends in education, the less he or she is likely to develop dementia symptoms.
For each additional year of education there is an estimated 11% reduced risk of developing dementia.
However, until now it has not been clear whether or not education had a physical protective effect on the brain.
Alzheimer’s is marked by deposits of beta-amyloid protein in the brain, and knotty protein structures in the nerves themselves called tau tangles.
Both are thought to contribute to the damage that results in the disease.
The new research involved examining the brains of 872 participants in EClipSE (Epidemiological Clinicopathalogical Studies in Europe), a collaboration between three large population-based studies of ageing.
Of the donors, 56% were suffering from dementia when they died, the journal Brain reported.
Once again an association was found between more education and less risk of dementia. But surprisingly, education appeared to have no impact on levels of dementia-associated brain damage.
Dr Hanna Keage, from Cambridge University, a member of the Anglo-Finnish team, said: “Previous research has shown that there is not a one-to-one relationship between being diagnosed with dementia during life and changes seen in the brain at death. One person may show lots of pathology in their brain while another shows very little, yet both may have had dementia.
“Our study shows education in early life appears to enable some people to cope with a lot of changes in their brain before showing dementia symptoms.”
The researchers said understanding the mechanisms behind the effect would be of “considerable value to society”.
Professor Carol Brayne, who led the Cambridge scientists, said: “Education is known to be good for population health and equity.”
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