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Sad news: education does not prevent cognitive decline related to ageing

Posted March 2, 2017

Reading, solving puzzles and overall educating yourself is believed to protect from cognitive decline at old age. However, as people suspected for quite some time, it may not be true. A new study from UCL revealed that education does not protect against cognitive decline as people age, although it does help having better memory.

Education may improve your memory and broaden your knowledge, but it will not prevent dementia. Image credit: Per Palmkvist Knudsen via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

There has been a long-held belief that people who are well educated and continue learning throughout their life have better chances of avoiding cognitive decline later in life. This new Europe-wide study, including 11,000 Europeans aged 65 and over from 10 different countries, revealed that it may not be true. Participants were tested every two years (they had to recall a 10-word list immediately and then again after five minutes) to see if the assumption made in previous studies that better educated people tend to have lower rates of dementia. This is quite important, because our population is aging and thus more and more people will experience dementia, while others will have to find ways to deal with it.

And so scientists looked and how many years of education each person has completed and then they tried to see if there is any correlation between education and performance in the tests. Of course, such factors as income, general health, smoking, body mass index, gender, and baseline age have been accounted for. Although more educated people performed better in the tests at first, subsequent tests showed that their education did not prevent decline in cognitive ability. In other words, educated people performed better, but their ability declined through the years at the same rate.

This means that education is not the key at preventing dementia. However, it does mean that the peak from which decline is inevitably going to happen is higher. Dr Graciela Muniz-Terrera, senior author of the study, said: “Our work shows a consistent pattern of results across ten various European countries, where education showed a potential protective effect on memory in individuals aged 65 and older, but not on the rate of memory decline at ages when people start to exhibit accelerated signs of cognitive decline”.

Education is still extremely helpful in so many ways. It may not help avoiding the decline, but it will improve your memory long-term. Also, it is important in other ways as well – maybe education will help dealing with dementia in the family better.


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