Oct. 23, 2007 -- New research links a person's years of formal education to his or her path toward dementia.
The study's key finding: Among elders with dementia, those with higher levels of education had a delayed, but steeper, decline in memory in the years leading up to their dementia diagnosis.
"Our study showed that a person with 16 years of formal education would experience a rate of memory decline that is 50% faster than someone with just four years [of] education," Charles B. Hall, PhD, says in a news release.
"This rapid decline may be explained by how people with more education have a greater cognitive reserve, or the brain's ability to maintain function in spite of damage," says Hall.
Hall works in New York as an associate professor of epidemiology and population health at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Dementia and Education
Hall's team reviewed data on 117 elders living in New York's Bronx neighborhood who developed dementia during a 27-year study.
Of the group's 21 high school graduates, seven had a college degree and some postgraduate education.
Participants got yearly checkups and took memory tests in which they had to memorize and immediately recall a list of 12 unrelated words.
The memory tests show that accelerated memory loss began 5.5 years before dementia diagnosis in typical participants, who had eight years of schooling.
Accelerated memory loss started later -- about four years before dementia diagnosis -- in elders with 16 years of education.
But when memory loss started, it happened faster in highly educated elders.
The study, published in Neurology, doesn't mean that education causes dementia.
A mix of genetic and environmental factors can affect dementia risk. Observational studies such as this one don't prove cause and effect.