Education may be tied to fewer "senior moments"
By Joene Hendry
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Elderly Americans may be stretching their brains in ways that help them stave off a decline in memory and mental function, also referred to as "cognitive decline," which leads to dementia.
The findings from two nationally representative surveys, conducted in 1993 and 2002, "support the idea that more education is protective against cognitive decline," Dr. Kenneth M. Langa told Reuters Health.
A nearly 30-percent decline in cognitive impairment occurred between the 1993 and 2002 survey, Langa, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues report. Importantly, they add, the average education level was nearly one year higher in 2002 than in 1993.
The investigators analyzed medical, lifestyle and demographic information as well as measures of memory, mental processing, knowledge, language, orientation and other indicators of cognitive function from participants in the Health and Retirement Study.
There were 7,406 subjects in the 1993 survey and 7,104 in the 2002 survey. The two groups were primarily white, 40 percent male, an average of 78 years old, and about half were living with a spouse, Langa's group reports in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia.
The investigators identified 12.2 percent of subjects as cognitively impaired in 1993. By 2002, rates of cognitive decline dropped to 8.7 percent.
In addition to achieving more education, the 2002 respondents also reported significantly greater net worth than the 1993 respondents.
"Higher levels of wealth likely lead to more or better educational opportunities and better access to health care," Langa said in an interview with Reuters Health.
Among individuals with moderate-to-severe cognitive impairment, the researchers noted higher mortality rates in the 2002 group. This implies that education may protect the brain to a point, but once it occurs, the impairment may be more severe and carry a greater risk of death.
The researchers conclude that modest improvements in education and mental stimulation during work and leisure activities may impact public health. They add that further studies should continue to assess the link between mental stimulation and cognitive impairment.
SOURCE: Alzheimer's and Dementia, online February 20, 2008.