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Research Says This One Thing Does Work For Dementia Prevention
“Use it or lose it” is a phrase we use to describe everything from muscle strength, paid vacation time, insurance benefits, to cell phone data plans. However, this phrase is most often used to describe the human brain. For years, we heard that using our brains to learn was the best way to protect us from dementia. But is that old saying really true? Is using your brain a good way to prevent dementia and protect ourselves from losing memory? And if this is true, what can we do about it?
What does the research say?
The relationship between education level and dementia has been written about in more than 150 academic research articles. Many found the same thing — individuals with higher education levels are less likely to develop dementia. In fact, a recent study from researchers at the University of Michigan found that the overall percentage of seniors with dementia has decreased in the past 10 years from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 8.8 percent in 2012. Researchers attributed this decline to today’s seniors having higher education levels than those in previous years.
Most of the scientific articles linking higher education level with decreased dementia suggest that this is related to what is known as “cognitive reserve,” or the brain’s resistance to damage. Cognitive reserve is like having an extra cushion of money in your bank account — even if you have an unplanned expense, there is still money left in the bank. The idea of cognitive reserve suggests that “working out” your brain by challenging it and learning new things may strengthen the brain and protect it from developing dementia.
Interestingly, some studies suggest that this decreased risk of developing dementia may not be due to decreased risk of brain changes in some people. Instead, those with higher education may be better able to cope with the effects of the disease. When comparing the brains of individuals with similar pathology or brain changes, individuals with higher education fared better. Even when their brains were equally damaged, individuals with higher education were less likely to exhibit signs of dementia. In fact, for each additional year of education, the risk of developing dementia decreased by 11 percent!
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This concept of cognitive reserve makes sense, right? When you exercise a muscle, it gets stronger. Then, when you suffer an injury or can’t exercise for a while, your muscles still recover fairly quickly because they already were strong. Well, in terms of brain health and memory, there might be more to the story.
Higher education often changes a person’s entire life path. Individuals with higher education may have higher incomes, more leisure activities, healthier diets, better cardiovascular health, and even better access to health care. All of these factors also relate to dementia. Therefore, it is hard to determine exactly how much of the decreased risk for dementia is due to the education itself as compared to the other lifestyle factors that education influences.
What can we do for dementia prevention?
So, what does this all mean? Does this mean that if you have lower education levels, you are destined to develop dementia? No! You can reap the benefits of higher education levels by simply engaging your brain in activities. Attend lectures or plays. Enroll in community education courses. Pick up a mentally stimulating hobby such as learning a new language or skill. Much in the way formal education works, challenging your brain can also build your cognitive reserve.
Unfortunately, even if you have a higher education level, you aren’t necessarily immune to dementia. No matter what your education level, it is important to reduce your risk of dementia through regular exercise, maintaining a healthy blood pressure, not smoking, and using your brain to learn new things.