WEDNESDAY, July 28, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- People with higher levels of education are better able to cope with dementia-related brain changes, which may explain why better-educated folks have a lower risk of developing dementia, researchers say.
Previous research has shown that each additional year of education is associated with an 11 percent reduced risk of developing dementia. But it wasn't clear whether higher levels of education itself or other factors related to it -- such as better lifestyle and financial status -- actually protected the brain against dementia.
The new study found that people with different levels of education experience the same dementia-related brain changes, but those with more education are better able to compensate for the effects of the brain disorder.
The researchers examined the brains of 872 people who participated in three large studies of aging populations in Europe. Before their deaths, the participants completed questionnaires about their education.
"Previous research has shown that there is not a one-to-one relationship between being diagnosed with dementia during life and changes seen in the brain at death. One person may show lots of pathology in their brain while another shows very little, yet both may have had dementia," study co-author Dr. Hannah Keage, of the University of Cambridge in England, said in a university news release.
"Our study shows education in early life appears to enable some people to cope with a lot of changes in their brain before showing dementia symptoms," she explained.
The study, published in the August issue of the journal Brain, has important implications for public health at a time when many countries have aging populations.
"Education is known to be good for population health and equity," study leader Carol Brayne, a professor at the University of Cambridge, said in the news release. "This study provides strong support for investment in early life factors which should have an impact on society and the whole lifespan. This is hugely relevant to policy decisions about the importance of resource allocation between health and education."
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about dementia.