June 23, 2003 -- Challenging your brain may indeed fight off Alzheimer's disease in old age.
Other studies have hinted at this possibility. But a new study explores it more deeply, suggesting that formal education and other brain-stimulating learning experiences create a protective "reserve" in the brain.
The report appears in the June 24, 2003 issue of Neurology.
It details the findings of 130 older Catholic clergy -- nuns, priests, brothers -- who underwent brain function testing eight years before they died. At their deaths, their brains were autopsied to determine the amount of damaging plaque and healthy nerve cells in their brains.
The data suggest that the more formal education a person has, the better their memory and learning ability is -- even though their brain may show abnormalities consistent with Alzheimer's disease.
In fact, the higher people moved up the educational ladder, the less effect the plaques had on their memory, perception, and other brain functions, reports lead researcher David A. Bennett, MD, a neurologist with Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago.
An example: Two women of the same age -- but with different levels of education -- had only slight differences in brain function scores in their initial testing. The 84-year-old woman in the most highly educated group (like postgraduate work) scored 98; the other woman scored 97, and had taken just a few college courses.
When they factored in the amount of brain plaque found during autopsy, they found that the more highly educated woman would have still scored significantly higher in brain function compared with the woman with less formal education.
These findings suggest that education provides a reserve in brain function that may be protected, regardless of how many brain plaques form. This advantage would offset risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Education "may make the brain more adaptable and flexible, similar to what we have seen demonstrated in experimental animals," he says. In previous studies, mice that lived in an "enriched" environment with toys and mazes had new connections among their brain cells.
It's more evidence that "use it or lose it" indeed applies to Alzheimer's disease.