Higher education or larger brain size may protect against dementia later in life, new study finds

Tampa, FL (July 10, 2003) -- Higher education or a larger brain may protect against dementia, according to new findings by researchers from the University of South Florida and the University of Kentucky.

The study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, provides important new evidence that either more years of formal education or better early brain development may help delay dementia in later life. The findings were drawn from the Nun Study, a longitudinal study of aging and Alzheimer's disease.

The study's first author James Mortimer, PhD, director of the USF Institute on Aging, reported that Catholic sisters who completed 16 or more years of formal education or whose head circumference was in the upper two-thirds were four times less likely to be demented than those with both smaller head circumferences and lower education. Head circumference has been shown in previous studies to be a good indicator of the volume or size of the brain.

"We did not find an association between education or head circumference and the presence of severe brain abnormalities characteristic of Alzheimer's disease pathology. This suggests that having higher education or a larger brain does not decrease the chances of Alzheimer's brain abnormalities, but rather allows the brain to function at a higher level despite the presence of these abnormalities," said Dr. Mortimer, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics.

"Larger brain size and more education provide extra reserve that allows one to function normally in the presence of a brain disease like Alzheimer's, similar to the way a larger and better constructed dam is able to prevent a flood from occurring during a major storm.

"Head circumference is completely determined by age 12, at which time maximum brain size is attained. However, because education is a lifelong process, it is possible that elderly people can delay or even prevent the on

Contact: Anne DeLotto Baier
University of South Florida Health

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