Researchers at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago have found that the more formal education a person has, the better his or her memory and learning ability, even in the presence of brain abnormalities characteristic of Alzheimer's disease (AD).
New findings from the Religious Orders Study (ROS), a long-running prospective study of aging and cognitive function in Catholic clergy, offers important new evidence that formal education may provide a cognitive "reserve" or a "neuroplasticity" that can reduce the effect of AD brain abnormalities on cognitive function in later life.
The research, published in the June 24, 2003, issue of Neurology by Dr. David A. Bennett, Rush colleagues and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, examined physical characteristics of autopsied brains of deceased participants in the Religious Orders Study. Bennett and colleagues also looked at the participants' years of education and performance on tests of overall cognitive function before death. Each of the 130 participants underwent cognitive testing about 8 months before death. In those tests, 19 measures of cognitive function were used to create a global cognitive function measure involving different forms of memory, perceptual speed, and "visuospatial" ability.
At death, brains of the participants were examined to see how much AD pathology, or damage, was evident. Scientists noted the extent of different kinds of amyloid plaques (which occur when snipped fragments of a larger protein clump together) and neurofibrillary tangles (which are formed when threads of the protein tau become entangled, damaging critical neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain).