Is there a link between an individual's educational level as well as his or her academic performance and Alzheimer's disease? Researchers are exploring this possibility with some going as far back as grade school performance for answers.
Alzheimer's and the Link to Learning
Getting good grades in elementary school may earn you more than just parental praise. A flurry of recent research on cognitive reserve – the brain's ability to compensate for parts that are failing due to dementia or other degenerative diseases – reveals that performing well in school may protect against dementia later in life.
"Cognitive reserve is like money in the bank," said Jennifer Manly, PhD, Associate Professor of Neuropsychology, Columbia University Medical Center, Department of Neurology. "It gives you a cushion from which you can draw in an emergency."
A study on cognitive reserve presented at the recent Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) followed 7,574 volunteers for 21 years. The research team measured the participants' education and occupational accomplishments. They also collected data on participants' school grades around age 10. This revealed that study participants with the lowest 20 percent of childhood school grades had a 21 percent higher risk for dementia. People with the greatest protection against dementia, according to the researchers, had both good grades during childhood and demanding jobs as adults.
Cognitive Reserve: Bequeathed or Built?
Before you begin searching for your 4th and 5th grade progress reports, Dr. Manly points out that researchers have yet to define the source of cognitive reserve.
"Is it inherited from parents? Does it increase during a lifetime that includes higher education, social engagement and physical exercise? We're not sure," she said. "What we do know, is that some people can handle brain pathology, like Alzheimer's disease, better than others."
A study published recently in JAMA Neurology focused on cognitive reserve and the brain's resilience to Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. The researchers found that older adults with at least 16 years of education had less of the progressive damage – called neurodegeneration – associated with dementia. Certain changes in fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord are considered to be a biomarker for dementia.
What did the research team conclude? While cognitive reserve may help stave off changes in the brain that signal dementia, other factors associated with a college education – socioeconomic status, opportunities for social interaction and cognitive stimulation – also may be part of the mix.
Dr. Manly – who serves as an Assistant Professor of Neuropsychology in Neurology at Columbia University's Taub Institute for Research in Aging and Alzheimer's disease – said this indicates there's much to be learned about the impact of education on cognitive reserve.
"We're still exploring if cognitive reserve builds over a lifetime or if we're born with it," she said. "There also needs to be more research conducted with people at different educational levels as well as people whose educations may have been interrupted."