A university professor giving a lecture
A university professor giving a lecture
A university professor giving a lecture

Does Higher Learning Combat Dementia?

Baby boomers: Did you know that dementia rates are declining? Common wisdom suggests that as people grow older and increasingly develop conditions that contribute to poor brain health, the prevalence of dementia would increase. But this might not be the case—and more years of education may partly to thank. 

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that dementia prevalence fell from 2000 to 2012 in people 65 and older, and that this drop was associated with staying in school longer.

Notably, the decrease in dementia occurred despite the increased prevalence of high blood pressure and diabetes, “conditions that can increase dementia risk,” comments Esther Oh, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the Johns Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer's Treatment Center. Oh, who is not affiliated with the study, also says that while the decline “appears to be related to improved education levels, more research is needed.” 

Dementia Rates Fall

Researchers at the University of Michigan studied survey data from more than 10,000 Americans and found that the dementia rate decreased by about 24 percent from 2000 to 2012. 

More years of education were associated with this decline. During that same time period, the average number of years of education increased from approximately 12 to 13. 

The decrease in dementia occurred in both men and women, despite elevated rates of high blood pressure and diabetes. Better control of these risk factors with medications may also have contributed to the decrease in dementia prevalence, note the researchers in their paper. 

Try It Keep Your Mind Active

In addition to managing medical conditions that raise your dementia risk, Esther Oh, M.D., Ph.D., recommends keeping your mind active to preserve brain health. “This doesn’t have to involve crossword puzzles or buying an expensive computer program that challenges the brain,” she says. “Socializing with your friends, being engaged with your family and pursuing activities that interest you can help keep your mind working.” 

Why Education May Help Prevent Dementia

Education could play an important role in improving cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s ability to cope with damage that would otherwise lead to dementia, according to Oh. 

Research suggests that education helps the brain develop more synapses, which are the junctions between brain cells that relay information, “but we’re not entirely sure,” says Oh. More synapses may boost cognitive reserve, which may help prevent dementia.

Another reason could be that people with more education tend to have healthier lifestyles than those with less education. “People who are more educated may be more aware that smoking, lack of exercise and not eating well are bad for their health,” she says, and they may make healthier choices.

Concerned About Memory Loss? Talk to Your Doctor

Despite the decline in dementia rates reported in this study, people should still be concerned about their cognitive health, says Oh. “Dementia is age-related, and as the population ages, the sheer number of people with dementia is going to be overwhelming,” she notes. 

In addition to an aging population, people are also living longer. So, even though the percentage of the population with dementia may decline, the overall number of individuals with the disease is likely to increase. 

Regardless of declining rates, “if you’re experiencing any problems with memory, you should contact your doctor right away,” she says.

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