Higher education levels can help mitigate the genetic risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Higher education levels can help mitigate the genetic risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Education Offers Protection Against Alzheimer’s Disease, Even for Those Genetically Predisposed

Education offers a protective buffer against Alzheimer’s, even in those genetically predisposed to it.

Genetics has long been considered the primary factor in determining one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. However, groundbreaking new research conducted by Mass General Brigham challenges this notion, particularly for individuals who are predisposed to early-onset forms of the disease. The study analyzed data from 675 people carrying the PSEN1 E280A genetic mutation, which often leads to Alzheimer’s symptoms appearing around the age of 49 years. The findings suggest that higher educational attainment can act as a protective factor, slowing down cognitive impairment even in the presence of strong genetic risks.

Unraveling the Role of Genetics and Education

In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School delve into the interplay between genetics, education, and cognitive deterioration in Alzheimer’s disease. They focused on individuals with the PSEN1 E280A mutation, which makes them susceptible to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Typically, patients with this mutation begin experiencing dementia symptoms around the age of 49.

The researchers discovered that individuals with the PSEN1 E280A mutation who also had an additional risk-increasing mutation, APOE e4, experienced a faster onset of cognitive decline. Conversely, those with a protective APOE e2 mutation saw a delayed onset of cognitive symptoms.

Education as a Protective Buffer

The study team also evaluated the influence of educational level on cognitive abilities in individuals carrying the PSEN1 E280A mutation, including those with various APOE genetic variants. The findings suggest that greater educational achievement, or more years of schooling, was linked to better cognitive function, especially among those with the highest genetic risk for the disease.

Dr. Stephanie Langella, the study’s first author and postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains that “in individuals with a genetically determined form of Alzheimer’s disease, the onset of clinical and cognitive impairment is influenced both by other genetic factors and years of educational attainment.”

Dr. Yakeel T. Quiroz, the corresponding author of the study and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, highlights that having more years of education could serve as a safeguard against cognitive decline, even when strong genetic predispositions are present. In other words, increasing educational attainment may be one way to preserve cognitive function in individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s.

The Importance of Educational Level

The study’s findings emphasize the significance of educational level in cognitive resilience for familial forms of Alzheimer’s disease, even in the presence of the most significant genetic risk factor, APOE e4. Dr. Sumeet Kumar, a geneticist and founder of geneswellness.com, comments that this study provides pivotal insights into the complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors in Autosomal Dominant Alzheimer’s Disease (ADAD). It suggests that educational attainment can influence the trajectory of the disease, opening up avenues for targeted interventions.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge the study’s limitations, including its cross-sectional design and the absence of data for certain variables. Dr. Kumar points out that the extent to which these results can be generalized to other types of Alzheimer’s remains unclear. Nonetheless, this study holds promise for future research to elucidate the biological mechanisms behind these observed trends and for the development of interventions tailored to individual risk profiles. Dr. Kumar believes that this could lead to more personalized approaches in Alzheimer’s care, aligning with the broader shift toward precision medicine in neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. James Giordano, a professor of neurology and biochemistry from the Pellegrino Center at Georgetown University Medical Center, adds that this study demonstrates the dynamic relationship between genetics, environmental factors, and the physical expression of anatomical and physiological characteristics. He suggests that ongoing cognitive and behavioral challenges, such as those inherent to education, learning, and engaging new information and skills, can sustain cognitive capability.

Access to Education and Interventions

While education has proven to be a protective factor against Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to acknowledge that not everyone has equal access to higher education. This disparity in educational opportunities poses a significant challenge in developing appropriate interventions. Achieving health and educational equity requires collaborative efforts from government agencies, educational institutions, non-profits, and communities. However, the benefits of providing equal access to education are not only educational but also extend to overall health and well-being.

The findings of this study align with a previous research conducted by Tohoku University in Senda, Japan, which showed that people who attended adult education classes in middle-to-old age were less likely to develop dementia or experience cognitive decline. Both studies highlight the dynamic relationship between multiple factors in determining the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.