A broad group of lifestyle and behavioral factors have been associated with the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease including diet, stress, exercise and others. A new study has increased the importance of one that has been previously known, educational attainment.
The study, CoSTREAM, looked at genetic patterns that have been previously shown to highly correlate with the likelihood of educational attainment. This gene pattern was also highly associated with a reduced likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. For every year of educational completion the risk of Alzheimer’s was reduced 11%. If education included the completion of college, risk was further reduced 26%.
The researchers commented that this association is consistent with the reducing rate of Alzheimer’s disease in the United Kingdom which contrasts to the sharply increasing rate in the United States. Along with greater emphasis on diet, exercise, and smoking reduction the UK has increased educational emphasis.
The effect is thought to relate to the development of "cognitive reserve". Just as physical exercise causes muscle to build up decreasing the risk of injury and age-related muscle loss, education builds up brain structure and offsets age related brain loss.
While recent losses in financial support for higher education in the US have occurred
based on “costs”, this may be short-sighted given the staggering cost projections associated with Alzheimer’s disease over the next 30 years. Saving a dollar now but costing hundreds more in the near future is never a winning strategy.
The best plan is for each individual to do everything to facilitate their own higher education and to continue “brain exercise” with life-long learning.
Larsson et al. Modifiable pathways in Alzheimer’s disease: Mendelian randomisation analysis. BMJ 2017; 359.