Rising Education Levels May Lower Dementia Risk

“When I was a little girl I had my very own golden haired princess. She had a soft voice, easy laugh and was so kind to me. I would visit her in her room and watch her get ready to go out. When I was eight she left me for someone else who would become her husband and oh, I missed her!

“She was my oldest sister and today she left me, and the three children she cherished so much, again – another victim of our family curse – Alzheimer’s.” This Facebook post was written by an old friend and former colleague of mine and sadly appropriate for Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.

Just last year, this woman’s other sister succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, as did her mother and grandmother before her. She concluded her post with these words:

“My heart goes out to all those whose family members leave life this way. With this disease, you don’t just lose your memory, you lose yourself.”

So, you can imagine, now how uplifted I was to stumble on an article on NBC News’ website from last November titled Dementia Rates Might Be Declining, New Study Finds. Yes!

This study led by Dr. Kenneth Langa of the University of Michigan and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia have fallen considerably since 2000.

Researchers reported that this may be a result of better education levels and better treatment for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The study researched records from 21,000 people with an average age of 75.

They found that based on standardized tests, the rate of dementia in Americans 65 years and older dropped from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 8.8 percent in 2012. They also found that in 2000 the average years of education rose from 11.8 years to 12.7 years in 2012.

“Our study, along with prior studies, supports the notion that ‘cognitive reserve’ resulting from early life and lifelong education and cognitive stimulation may be a potent strategy for the primary prevention of dementia in both high- and low-income countries around the world,” they wrote.

“More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease,” the article states. “The Alzheimer’s Association says more than 28 million baby boomers will develop the disease between now and 2050, and the cost of caring for them will consume nearly 25 percent of Medicare spending in 2040.”

The research supported the theory that increased physical activity, eating a heart-healthy diet, maintaining social engagement and keeping the brain active with puzzles and/or games can help prevent or at least delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Dr. Langa’s team noted treating other diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol may also help lower the risk.

“Rising levels of education among U.S. adults over the past 25 years may have contributed to decreased dementia risk. The proportion of adults 65 years or older with a high school diploma increased from 55 percent in 1990 to 80 percent in 2010, while the proportion with a college degree increased from 12 percent to 23 percent,” they wrote.

But they don’t know exactly why a better education reduces the chances for dementia but speculate that “better-educated people may have a better ability to adapt to the lost brain function caused by dementia; they may be healthier in general; and they may have better medical care.”

Dr. Langa’s credentials are extensive. He earned both a PhD and his MD from the University of Chicago. His profile states that his “research focuses on the epidemiology and costs of chronic disease in older adults, with an emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. He is currently focusing on the relationship of cardiovascular risk factors to cognitive decline and dementia in middle-age and older adults.”

I’m sure I’m not alone when I hope that researchers such as Dr. Langa find a way we can all reduce our chances for developing Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia. I’m sure my friend who just lost yet another loved one agrees.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.