According to a November report heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered” program, there is some encouraging news in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia: The rate at which older Americans are getting these conditions is declining. In its report, NPR cited a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, wherein the researchers say one reason for the improved outlook is an increase in education.
The study reportedly used data gathered in 2000 and in 2012. Each set of data looked at more than 10,000 Americans who were at least 65 years old. In the data set from 2000, 11.6% of those in the study had some form of dementia. In the data set from 2012, the group of those with dementia was 8.8%. “That’s well over a million people who don’t have dementia, who would have had it if the rates had stayed the same as the 2000 rates,” said John Haaga, director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging, which funded the study.
In her health news reporting for NPR, correspondent Ina Jaffe explains that while the prevalence of dementia cases dropped, the average amount of education in the study population increased. In 2000, the average amount of education was 11.8 years, just shy of the 12 years it usually takes to graduate from high school. In 2012, the average amount of education was 12.7 years — which appears to translate as, high school plus a little bit of college.
According to researchers, they don’t know why education should be a protector against dementia, but they theorize that education might actually change the brain itself, creating more complicated connections between the nerve cells, which may enable a person to keep thinking normally to later age in life.
Haaga argues that education can change your brain, and much more. “It affects what kind of work you do, of course. It also affects who your friends are, who you’re married to, whether you’re married. All aspects of life are affected by educational attainment,” Haaga told NPR.
What isn’t clear from the study is if education alone is the primary factor that can delay Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. It appears there are other medical factors, too. Haaga believes better aggressive medical care for co-morbidities that are risk factors for dementia such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes may also be factors.
Jaffe reports that other studies have shown similar declines in dementia risk in wealthier nations, but this new study is different in that it draws on the ongoing Health and Retirement Study that follows about 20,000 older Americans of all backgrounds nationwide. It is believed that the new study indicates the prevalence of dementia is declinining across all US regions and demographics.
Importantly, the report notes that while the risk of dementia is declining, the number of cases is still expected to rise because the US population of older adults is increasing, with the number of people 65 and older is expected to nearly double by 2050. Although treatment of hearing loss was not mentioned in the NPR report or the study article, one wonders if earlier treatment of hearing loss in the aging population and the use of hearing technologies may also be contributing to a delays or declines in dementia.
For more details from the study, read the original article from Jaffe on the NPR website.
Image credits: NPR; Doby Photography