Education blunts effects of Alzheimer’s: study

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Brain scans of people with an abnormality that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease are strengthening the notion that greater education levels somehow protect against this common form of dementia.

People with more education did better on memory and problem solving tests than others with similar amounts of brain plaques related to Alzheimer’s, researchers wrote in the journal Archives of Neurology on Monday.

Researchers are eager to find factors that help patients dodge the mind-robbing ailment or withstand its effects. Previous research showed that having more years of formal education seemed to delay the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s.

In the new study, Catherine Roe of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and colleagues performed positron emission tomography, or PET, scans on the brains of 37 people with Alzheimer’s and 161 people without the disease.

The scans determined the amount of plaques, deposits of the protein fragment beta-amyloid that build up between nerve cells in the brain. For people with few or none of these plaques, education level had no bearing on performance on the cognitive tests, the researchers said.

But for those with these brain plaques, performance on the tests closely corresponded to schooling — rising with a person’s increasing education levels, the researchers said.

“If you had more education, it looked like you were better able to handle having plaques in your brain without showing dementia symptoms,” Roe said in a telephone interview.

“It tells us more about Alzheimer’s disease and how it works in the brain,” Roe added.

The findings indicate that people with more education may have a greater “cognitive reserve” — the brain’s ability to keep working despite damage, the researchers said.

As many as 5.2 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But those numbers are expected to balloon as the population ages.

(Editing by Maggie Fox)

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