A Compelling Reason to Finish High School?

Neuroscience_Neurology2.jpgA new Finnish study published in Neurology, the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology, concludes that not finishing high school is an independent risk factor for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) later on in life, compared to those who entered higher education. The study carried out on 1,388 participants, followed them up for an average of 21 years through middle-life and beyond. Participants were categorized according to whether they finished elementary school, middle school or high school, and it was found that compared to those with elementary education only, middle school leavers had a 40 percent lower risk of developing dementia. For those with high school education and beyond, the comparative reduction of risk was 80 percent.

Alzheimer’s disease is often characterized by deposits of abnormal proteins (plaques), changes the structure within brain cells (tangles), amidst widespread loss of brain cells and connections between them. Recent research has suggested that intellectual pursuits, socializing and regular physical exercise are three lifestyle choices that can reduce the risk if development of AD, although how it does so is generally unknown.

Higher education does lead to a vastly enhanced amount of connections (synapses) between brain cells, which might be a regulatory factor controlling our brain’s chemistry as we get older. We are far from understanding what exactly brings on AD, but it might be due to a combination of factors. We also know that a variety of other conditions are linked to it – some genetic mutations (ApoE is the most well-known), damage to the brain’s blood supply by fatty atherosclerotic plaques, smoking or head injury. Education, possibly builds up a huge reserve of specialized and functioning brain cells, which can withstand the damaging factors mentioned above, better and for much longer. Currently this is the best insurance again AD we have got – to fire those brain cells through complex brain skills. This might potentially be a good reason to finish high school and venture beyond, if it is not solely for the pleasures of the intellect.


Ngandu T, von Strauss E et al. Education and dementia: what lies behind the association?Neurology (2007) October; 69:14 pages 1442-50.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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