Why Education Reduces Risk of Dementia


Previous studies have shown that the more education people have, the less risk they have of developing dementia, but the reason this is so was not explained. Now, a research team has announced that they know why education reduces the risk of dementia.

Generally, a higher level of education is associated with a higher socioeconomic status and healthier lifestyles. But previous studies never identified whether a person’s educational level protects the brain against dementia. In a review of five studies, for example, entitled “Education and Dementing Disorder: The Role of Schooling in Dementia and Cognitive Impairment,” the author concluded that “mental activity stimulated by education during childhood could be a possible mechanism explaining how high education protects against cognitive decline and dementia.”

An international group of investigators from the United Kingdom and Finland evaluated the brains of 872 individuals who had participated in ageing studies and had also completed questionnaires about their education. The researchers found that having completed more education makes people better able to compensate for the changes that occur in the brain with dementia.

According to Professor Carol Brayne of the University of Cambridge, who led the study, the brains of people who have different levels of education have similar pathology, but those with higher levels of education are better able to cope with the effects of dementia. For each additional year of schooling, there is an 11 percent decrease in the risk of developing dementia.


Co-author Dr. Hannah Keage of the University of Cambridge noted that one person with dementia may have significant physical changes in the brain while another also with dementia shows very little. “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.”

This latest study was able to uncover the mystery of why education helps ward off dementia because it utilized data from participants in three large studies that spanned up to 20 years.

The results of this study highlight why higher education reduces the risk of developing dementia and the importance of investing in education. Professor Brayne added that the findings are “hugely relevant to policy decisions about the importance of resource allocation between health and education.”

Brayne C et al. Education, the brain and dementia: neuroprotection or compensation. Brain 26 July 2010
De Ronchi D. Education and dementing disorder. Karolinska Institutet 2005.

This page is updated on May 18.