Well Educated People Less Likely To Develop Alzheimer’s Disease

A pile of booksSeveral studies have suggested a link between high formal education levels and a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, research has shown a tendency for those in highly skilled occupations to be less likely to develop the disease than those in lower skilled, “blue-collar” jobs.

A recent study presented in the journal Neurology, analyzed data taken from the Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging, and Dementia study (CAIDE) to determine the extent of the relationship between education and the development of dementia.

This study involved following 1,449 middle aged individuals from Finland for 21 years. The participants were first surveyed in either 1972, 1977, 1982 or 1987. A final follow-up re-examination of the individuals, now aged between 65 and 79, was carried out in 1998.

Researchers found that those individuals who had between 6 and 8 years formal education had, on average, a 43% lower risk of developing dementia and a 51% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with 5 or less years of formal education. For individuals with 9 or more years of formal education, the risk of developing dementia was a massive 84% lower than those with 5 or less years of education while the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease was 85% lower.

The associations did not significantly change when potential confounding variables such as lifestyle and socio-economic factors were taken into account and the results were the same for both men and women.

An earlier American study involving 594 people, which was published in 1994 in the Journal of the American Medical Association had found a similar relationship between low education levels and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

That study also found that those working in low-skilled occupations were at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Those with the combination of a low skilled job and low education levels were at almost three times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, research published in the Archives of Neurology in 2001 involving 1,296 Swedish men and women aged over 75 found that those with less than 8 years of formal education had more than 2.5 times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and around twice the risk of developing any form of dementia compared to those with 8 or more years of formal education. The results of that study are presented below.

Graph of Alzheimer's disease by education level

While educated people tend to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia much later in life, some studies have found that highly educated individuals appear to deteriorate much quicker upon diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

It is thought that those with higher levels of education may be better able to tolerate a small degree of deterioration in the brain meaning early stage Alzheimer’s disease might go unnoticed for a long period of time. Because of this, Alzheimer’s disease may be well advanced at the time of diagnosis which might explain the faster rates of mental decline observed in highly educated people following the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.