Higher education, language skills linked to lower dementia risk

WATERLOO, Ontario — Mild cognitive impairment is by no means a surefire indicator that someone will develop full-blown dementia. In fact, researchers from the University of Waterloo report adults with mild cognitive impairment are more than twice as likely to return to normal cognition if they’ve participated in higher education and have advanced language skills.

Many older people can’t help but assume the worst each and every time they forget where they left their keys or what they ate for dinner the night before. Forgetfulness, however, is a normal part of growing old for virtually everyone – not necessarily an early stage of dementia. While doctors consider “mild cognitive impairment” the stage between normal age-related cognitive decline and full-on dementia, this new study adds further evidence that a mild cognitive impairment diagnosis does not guarantee Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia at a later date.

While it is undeniable that those with mild cognitive impairment do show signs of concerning cognitive decline, mild thinking or memory issues are not enough to stop most people from carrying on with their daily lives in a normal manner. However, where there is “cognitive smoke” there may indeed be a “dementia fire” starting. This is where higher education and language skills can come into the picture and potentially help.

“Possessing high cognitive reserve – based on education, high academic grades, and written language skills – may predict what happens years after someone receives a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment,” says study author Suzanne Tyas, a professor in the School of Public Health Sciences, in a university release. “Even after considering age and genetics – established risk factors for dementia – we found that higher levels of education more than doubled the chances that people with mild cognitive impairment would return to normal cognition instead of progressing to dementia.”

Reading and writing skills can prevent dementia

Study authors report superior language skills, showcased by strong English grades in school or engaging, grammatically complex writing skills, also display a protective effect against dementia.

Among a group of 472 women diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, close to a third saw their cognition improve back to “normal” at least once over an average of eight-and-a-half years post-diagnosis. More than 80 percent never ended up developing dementia.

One-third, however, did progress to dementia without ever reverting back to normal cognition. Another three percent stayed within the criteria for mild cognitive impairment, and 36 percent passed away. No one went from a formal dementia diagnosis back to mere mild cognitive impairment.

This research shows, study authors explain, that reverse transitions from mild cognitive impairment to normal cognition are actually much more common than moving from impairment to full blown dementia among “relatively younger people who don’t carry a certain genetic risk factor and had high levels of education and language skills.”

“We can’t do much about age and genetics, so it’s encouraging that our findings show that there are other ways to reduce the risk of dementia, such as building cognitive reserve through education and language skills earlier in life,” Prof. Tyas adds.

These findings come from data originally collected for the Nun Study, which was a project examining older, highly educated religious sisters. This study’s authors used a series of complex models to analyze the data.

“If individuals with higher cognitive reserve are more likely to improve even without treatment, then this needs to be taken into consideration when recruiting participants for clinical trials of prospective treatments and when interpreting the results of these trials,” Prof. Tyas concludes.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.

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