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The Relationship Between Alzheimer’s and Education

The Relationship between Alzheimer’s and Education

Alara Ersoy – Despite our opportunities for higher education and the chance of life-long learning opportunities, the threat of Alzheimer’s is very real for many of us. Here I explore some of the ways to keeping this disease at bay by looking into the mechanisms behind our cognitive functioning.

“cognitive reserve is like money in the bank, it gives you a cushion from which you can draw from an emergency.”

Often we hear that highly educated people, or people with more demanding jobs, have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in their future. Even though at first glance this sounds reasonable, considering that active learning keeps our brains active, this hypothesis has created a debate in the academic sphere. Many different universities and doctors have surveyed research in order to answer the questions: “Do highly-educated people have less risk of getting Alzheimer’s?”, “Does the level of our education lower our chances of getting Alzheimer’s?”, and many more. Since I have Alzheimer’s in my family, I wanted to better understand the possibility of me developing the disease in the future. Furthermore, this article may also be wake-up call for those of you who have the disease in your family, and hopefully explain why you also have to actively use your brain capacity, do exercises for your brain, and most importantly always be open to learn new things.

           To understand the relationship with Alzheimer’s and education first we have to be familiar with the concept of ‘cognitive reserve’. In order to do that we have to define the term ‘cognitive’. Cognitive means relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity, such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering. Thus cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to preserve and maintain cognitive function despite damage that may occur. Jennifer Manly, the Associate Professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Centre, tells us that “cognitive reserve is like money in the bank, it gives you a cushion from which you can draw from an emergency.” She adds that research cannot define the source of cognitive reserve; whether it is inherited, gained with higher education, social engagement, or physical exercise is unknown. However, she highlights that some people can handle Alzheimer’s better than others. 

           The question arises then, “Why some people can handle Alzheimer’s better than others?” Many pieces of research found an answer: education. An experiment presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC), demonstrated that participants who received the lowest 20% of school grades had a 21% higher risk of getting dementia. Furthermore, a study conveyed by the PAQUID (Personnes Agees Quid) research program who studied the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in subjects with no education, at primary level, and in secondary or university level showed that there is a higher risk of Alzheimer’s in people with no education. This tells us that education plays a grand role in preventing the disease. Moreover, the study shows the difference between the sexes who have Alzheimer’s. While 0,8% of men have Alzheimer’s, 1,4% of women are affected by the disease per year. However, the research concludes by stating that the difference between the sexes’ risk of getting Alzheimer’s may also be caused by education. Overall, according to the research data, women have less education then men and this may be the greatest cause for difference between the sexes’ Alzheimer’s rates.

           This statement is supported by the results from a Shangai survey, which indicates the lack of education is a major determinant of the prevalence of dementia. However, the survey also indicated that mental health is an important factor. The survey pointed out that non-educated people ages 55-64 has no cases of Alzheimer’s, and 65-74 only has a few cases. However, when we look at instances where they have even minor cases of mental health issues, the rates of Alzheimer’s increases. 

           On the other hand, some researchers believe that higher education cannot prevent Alzheimer’s. Cohut suggests that many studies published have no evidence that supports this fact that higher education prevents Alzheimer’s. She suggests that a high level of education boosts a person’s cognitive reserve. She also highlights that high cognitive reserve acts as a safeguard against cognitive impairment. However, the effect of education when preventing Alzheimer’s is still questionable. A research conducted by Gottesman from John Hopkins University School of Medicine found no link between cognitive reserve and lower risk of Alzheimer’s. However, the same study confirmed that higher-education may remain cognitively functional for longer since the reserve of highly educated people takes longer to become drained.

           Now, even though this is an article for our science theme, I would like to talk about my own experience with the disease and explain the reason for my curiosity on the topic. My grandma currently has Alzheimer’s. Although it is quite sad to watch someone become another person, she was and still is a bright woman. Having different reactions to certain events, new habits, and eventually turning back their childhood. Since this is a hereditary disease, meaning that it can transfer to new generations, I was afraid for both myself and my father since we are blood relatives of my grandmother. The only thing that differs from my grandmother is that she only finished high school, meaning that she studied for 11 years maximum, whilst I have been studying for 16 years now and have some more to go. She was married at 19 and started her family-life. She never worked. Even though she was in love with literature and writing poems, she did not have a life where she regularly learns something new. Learning new information is like exercise for our brains. Our memory gets stronger when we work with our brains. Many elderly people solve “Sudoku” puzzles or crossword puzzles in order to prevent memory loss. 

It is quite understandable why my grandmother has Alzheimer’s. As we understand from the research that we have just examined, just because I am highly educated, it does not mean I can prevent developing Alzheimer’s for good. However, it does mean that I, and any other reader who has Alzheimer’s in their families, can postpone Alzheimer’s or simply strengthen our cognitive reserve so that we can diminish our possibility of developing the disease. Furthermore, being aware of our mental state and asking for help when needed can also reduce our chances of getting the disease. To conclude, with or without education, work, or a stable mental health, we always have the slight risk of developing Alzheimer’s. That is why we should cherish every moment and the people we love, while we can still remember them the next day.


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