Dementia is a debilitating disease that slows down or even stops your cognitive functions, leaving you confused and unable to function. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, and it is estimated that nearly 13 million Americans will have it by 2050. Dementia is caused by the disease process of neurodegeneration in which neurons are lost from brain tissue over time, disrupting cognitive ability. Education is a big predictor of dementia, as higher levels of education are associated with a substantially lower risk of dementia. Even so, it is important to understand if higher education happens to reduce the risk of dementia.
Elements that Increase the Risk of Dementia
- Age: The age of an individual greatly increases his or her risk of dementia. People who are 75 years old have a significantly greater risk of dementia than those in their 30s. In fact, people who are 99 years old have double the risk of those who are 45 years old.
- Family history: The history of the family can also have a profound impact. If one sibling or parent has dementia, there is a sevenfold increase in the risk of dementia for another sibling or parent.
- Physical activity: People who are less physically active have a greater risk of developing dementia than those who are more physically active. Specifically, they have an increased risk of developing vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Education: Higher education is often regarded as a protective factor against the development of dementia. People with higher education have a lower risk of developing dementia. However, this link can be misleading in many cases. It is likely that those who are more educated are simply more likely to survive to the later stages of dementia and become part of the study population. This means that those without a high education might have been overlooked when determining the study population.
Ways Through Which Higher Education Reduces Risk of Dementia
- It reduces the risk of vascular dementia: Vascular dementia is the most common form of dementia and affects about 60% to 70% of people who develop the disease. The mechanism that explains why vascular dementia occurs is that there is too much brain inflammation. One significant cause of inflammation in the brain is a lack of exercise. In fact, those who are more physically active have a lower risk of vascular dementia.
- It reduces risk of Alzheimer’s disease: There are two stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The first is the pre-dementia stage, where problems with thinking and memory occur. In this stage, people are typically diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. The second stage, which occurs when the person has developed mild cognitive impairment, is dementia and can last for many years. It has been shown that a higher education can reduce the risk of pre-dementia and delay such an outcome in those who have already developed dementia.
- It reduces the risk of cognitive decline: As an individual’s cognitive capabilities decline, the risk of dementia increases. Individuals who have higher levels of education are less likely to experience a decline in cognition than those who do not.
- It reduces the risk of apathy: Individuals who are more educated and have more cognitive capabilities are less likely to experience a loss of interest in life as they age, and this is true even if they suffer from dementia. This suggests that it might reduce the risk of developing apathy even if it does not prevent dementia.
- It reduces risk of depression: Studies have shown that there is a significant link between high levels of education and a reduced likelihood of suffering from depression. In fact, those who have the lowest levels of education have a threefold greater risk of suffering from depression.
The findings on whether it reduces the risk of dementia are quite conflicting. Some large studies have shown that higher levels of education does not prevent dementia but rather only delays it by as many as 10 years in some cases. However, a recent study has found that it does protect women from developing dementia. This suggests that there is another factor in addition to education that prevents this disease from occurring.
A theory that explains why it reduces the risk of dementia is the so-called chilling effect. This theorizes that those who are more educated become less likely to squander their cognitive abilities on risky behavior. For example, those who are more educated are less likely to drink to excess, smoke and engage in high-risk activities. This, in turn, reduces the chance of developing dementia as they will take fewer risks.
It is evident that lower education does the opposite of the theory of the “chilling effect” in that those who are less educated are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as binge drinking and smoking. This is because they are more likely to acquire high blood pressure and other health conditions, which increase their risk of dementia.
Overall, education can lead to lower chances of getting dementia for two reasons. First, the more educated a person is, the better they are at learning things, so they can retain the information needed to protect themselves from dementia. Second, if a person is educated in the right fields and achieves a higher level of it, chances are that their lifestyle will change beneficially as well.