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A new study has found that whilst older people with a higher level of education have better memory function, it does not protect them from cognitive decline as they age.
Research published in the journal Neuroepidemiology suggests that education remains a strong indicator of cognitive function in later life, but researchers are less clear on whether education can stop the declines in cognition that come naturally with ageing.
Dr James Pickett, head of research and development at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “This large study looked at whether levels of education impact on the natural decline in memory and thinking that occurs as we get older. It found that, although older people who are more educated perform better on memory tests, there was no differences in the rate of memory decline they experienced as they aged compared to their less educated peers.
“Previous studies have found that more years spent in education are linked to a lower rate of dementia. Today’s findings reinforce that dementia is not a natural part of ageing and that the factors that may delay the onset of dementia might not have the same effect on the forgetfulness that is all too common as we grow older.
“As we continue to live longer, it’s important to find ways to help us preserve our memory and thinking skills as well as to develop ways to reduce our risk of dementia – such as eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising regularly.”
In one of the largest and most comprehensive studies on education and cognitive decline to date, researchers at University College London (UCL) explored changes in memory and cognitive performance over an eight-year period in over 11,000 Europeans aged 65 and over from ten different countries.
The participants were tested at first entry into the study, referred to as baseline, and then again at two-year intervals. Participants were asked to recall a ten-word list immediately and then again after five minutes.
The level of education was determined by the number of years of education completed by each participant and evaluated in association with memory performance and rate of change while accounting for income, general health, smoking, body mass index (BMI), gender and baseline age.
In most countries, the more educated individuals performed better on both memory tests at baseline, compared to those who were less educated. However, when the same individuals were followed-up and asked to repeat the tests, their level of education did not have an effect on the rate that their memory declined over time.
Researchers found that Germany and the Netherlands had the best performance of memory recall at study entry, while Spain had the lowest performance. They also identified a gender difference in recall with women performing better than men in most countries, but gender difference was not found in the rate of cognitive decline.
Senior author and former Alzheimer’s Society research fellow, Dr Graciela Muniz-Terrera, 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.”
Dr Dorina Cadar, lead author of the study and a research associate in dementia at UCL, said: “At a country level, variation in cognitive performance has rarely been investigated in healthy European older individuals. Despite significant differences in educational systems across countries, education remains a strong indicator of cognitive function in later life, but this study shows we are less clear on whether education can stop the declines in cognition that come naturally with ageing.
“What we do not know is whether those with lower education in this study had poorer memory at baseline because they have had poorer memories their whole lives, or because they have already experienced some declines in their memory performance due to ageing.”
The research was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Alzheimer’s Society.