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Dementia: Could taking adult education classes help lower risk?

  • Adult education is linked to a reduced risk of dementia in a new study.
  • The study finds that people who took adult education classes were 19% less likely to develop dementia later on.
  • Experts advise that the most important overall action is maintaining a healthy lifestyle that helps keep the body and mind fit.

People who took adult education classes in middle-to-old age are less likely to develop dementia or experience cognitive decline later on in life, according to a new study from Tohoku University in Senda, Japan.

Individuals participating in adult education classes at the start of the study had a 19% lower risk of dementia five years later.

The study’s author analyzed data from 282,421 people who had enrolled with the UK Biobank between 2006 and 2010. At enrollment, they were between 40 and 69 years old and were followed for 7 years for the purposes of this study.

The UK Biobank contains medical and health information and genetic information for each enrolled individual, allowing the current study’s authors to score their likelihood of developing dementia.

The study found that while adult education classes were associated with preserving fluid intelligence, there was no protective effect on visuospatial memory or reaction time.

As an observational study, the authors do not assert a causal connection between adult education and a lower risk of dementia but merely an association of the two.

The study is published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

How adult education may help prevent dementia

Drawing on a population that spans 29 years in age, it is unclear if there is an age at which the protective benefit of adult education begins.

“Our study cannot indicate this”, said first author Dr. Hikaru Takeuchi to Medical News Today. It also does not track whether such education continued for participants throughout the study period, and “[p]articipation in adult education is only evaluated at baseline,” Dr. Takeuchi noted.

Senior lecturer in cognitive epidemiology and dementia at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom, Dr. Dorina Cadar — who was not involved in the study — said it is not yet clear how adult education may affect the risk of dementia.

She nevertheless suggested that “adult education may increase cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s ability to cope with damage or decline by using alternative strategies, brain networks or pathways.”

“Education might stimulate brain plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself in response to new experiences or challenges,” said Dr. Cadar.

What is cognitive reserve?

Dr. Cadar pointed out that “cognitive reserve is an abstract concept that cannot be directly measured, but inferred through a variety of proxy measures.”

Those proxies include measures of brain volume, head circumference, synaptic count, and dendritic branching.

It is also the case, according to Dr. Cadar, that “variables descriptive of life experience are commonly used as proxies for cognitive reserve. These include measures of socioeconomic status, such as income or occupational attainment, educational attainment, and leisure activity.”

Fluid intelligence, visuospatial memory, and reaction time

The main effect associated with adult education in the new study was on fluid intelligence, one of several standards by which cognitive performance may be measured.

Fluid intelligence was first described by Raymond B. Cattell in 1943 as “the ability to reason, solve novel problems, and identify patterns.“

Dr. Cadar added that it also involves the ability to “think flexibly, learn new information, identify rules, think abstractly, and problem-solve in novel situations.”

Visuospatial memory — upon which adult education had no effect — is the type of memory that recalls where objects are and their relationship to each other. Reaction time is the speed at which a person responds to stimuli.

Dr. Cadar questioned whether the preservation of fluid memory says that much about preventing dementia.

“A person with dementia and intact fluid reasoning may still be able to learn new skills or new information […], adapt to changing situations and recognize relationships among concepts,” she noted.

“Fluid reasoning can be affected by dementia, but it is not the only aspect of cognition that is important for daily functioning. A person with dementia may still have difficulties with memory, language, judgment, and other mental processes,” Dr. Cadar pointed out.

Education as a proxy for socioeconomic status

Dr. Cadar noted that “[i]n some populations, the degree of literacy might be a better marker for [cognitive reserve] than the number of years of formal education because it is a more direct measure of educational attainment.”

“Most of us cherish the notion of free will and choice, but the conditions in which we live and age are constrained by socioeconomic determinants, which do not operate in isolation. Rather, they are intricately woven together in a dynamic and mutually reinforcing way.”

– Dr. Dorina Cadar

“In recent work we conducted at University College London funded by the Alzheimer Society,” recalled Dr. Cadar, “We showed that being engaged in cognitive and social leisure activities contributes to a decreased risk of dementia. Just like physical exercise does wonders for our physical body, the mind needs some training too.

“Wealth represents a gateway to more mentally stimulating environments, healthy lifestyles, and possibly access to better health care,” pointed out Dr. Cadar.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is keeping a healthy lifestyle [that] includes exercise of the body and brain.”

Dr. Cadar concluded, “We hope that public health strategies for dementia prevention should target socioeconomic gaps to reduce health disparities and protect those who are particularly disadvantaged.”

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