A study published in November 2021 in the journal Nature Aging found that older adults who attained a lower level of education than their peers are at higher risk for dementia. The findings of a new biomarker for dementia are important because it shows that environmental factors can accelerate the decline of brain function at older ages.
Researchers analyzed existing data from adults ranging in age from 40 to 80 who had between two and five MRI scans in addition to several clinical visits, including visits up to 10 years after a patient’s last MRI. The researchers delved into the relationship between a study participant’s education level and the changes in their brain network organization over time. The researchers also accounted for factors such as demographics, genetics, and other health and pathology measures.
People with lower levels of education showed greater declines in their brain system segregation than those with higher levels of education. The participants in the dataset used for the study were initially recruited because they came from populations with higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease due to their age, family history, or clinical status. However, the researchers were able to account for those factors, and they still found that the relationship between lower educational attainment and greater brain system segregation continued to persist.
How does education impact health outcomes?
Americans who have a lower level of education have worse health and live for a shorter time than their peers who have higher educational attainment. Between 1990 and 2008, the gap in life expectancy between the most educated and least educated people was 14 years for men and 10 years for women.
The outcomes may not have to do directly with the attainment of a college education, but rather because people with a college degree often have more resources, earn more income, and have access to better neighborhoods, schools, and services. They may also have better eating habits because they have consistent access to fresh foods and may be less likely to eat more processed foods, which may be why people with higher education levels have lower rates of heart disease and diabetes.
What does this study mean for the future?
While this study has found a relationship between education attainment levels and brain function, future studies are needed to further understand that relationship. More information is needed to better understand the environmental factors that impact brain network organization. Once that information is further uncovered, interventions can be identified and implemented to slow or stop declining brain function.