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See Inside February/March 2008

Double-Edged Sword

Education delays dementia, but memory declines faster once it hits

Research has found that the onset of dementia is delayed in people who have more years of formal education. But a new study shows that this protection may come at a price: once dementia does hit, the well-educated lose their memory faster.

Researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University studied people with three years to more than 16 years of formal education and found that for every additional year of schooling people had, their memory declined 4 percent more quickly after the onset of dementia. The researchers speculate that individuals with more education can unconsciously compensate as their brain changes with age, preventing the early symptoms of dementia from showing. Consequently, when disease eventually overwhelms the brain and symptoms become severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of dementia, the memory decline that follows is more rapid because the degeneration is at a later stage

Past studies have shown that challenging the brain with activities, such as solving puzzles or reading books, may also delay dementia. But researchers do not yet know if these mental challenges truly protect the brain or if the people who engage in these activities are simply better educated.

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