The importance of educational attainment in cognitive health

The importance of educational attainment in cognitive health
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The deteriorative effects of cardiovascular risk factors on late-life cognitive health are strong in individuals with lower education levels.

The number of people suffering from dementia is increasing in the modern world, with ageing populations and growing life expectancy. For more effective dementia prevention, it is important to better understand the risk and protective factors affecting late-life cognitive health. It is understood that midlife cardiovascular risk factors are associated with weaker late-life cognitive health.

A team of researchers from the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku aimed to examine if education background affects this association.

The study, published in Age and Ageing, utilised data from over 4000 Finnish twins.

Cognitive health and cardiovascular risk factors

Maintaining good cognitive health in older age is important. The ability to think, learn and remember is a vital component of everyday life. Scientific research suggests that small changes can contribute to the improved functioning of cognition. Incorporating the following habits can support cognitive health, including eating healthy foods, being physically active, managing stress and taking care of physical health.

“The study showed that cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high body mass index and physical inactivity, were associated with poorer late-life cognition. This association was stronger in those with lower educational attainment compared to those with higher education,” explained postdoctoral researcher Paula Iso-Markku from the University of Helsinki, the lead author of the study.

The results highlighted the importance of childhood and adolescent education in dementia prevention.

“The mechanisms are not yet known, but these results may reflect the effect of cognitive reserve. Higher educational attainment may increase cognitive reserve that helps to tolerate dementia risk factors better”, said Academy of Finland Research Fellow Eero Vuoksimaa, who led the study.

The twin study was designed to enable the examination of genetic and shared environmental effects in these associations. Shared environment means all environmental factors that make children of the same family similar, like socioeconomic background and living environment, like eating and exercising habits.


Higher education level was associated with better late-life cognitive health in co-twins with similar cardiovascular risk burden. On the contrary, in co-twins with similar educational backgrounds, cardiovascular risk factors were not associated with late-life cognitive health. The results suggested that the association of education and late-life cognitive health is independent of genetics and shared environment, but the associations between midlife cardiovascular risk factors and late-life cognitive health are rather explained by shared environmental and genetic effects.

“The study results do not imply that a healthy lifestyle is not important in the prevention of dementias but rather emphasises the significance of familial effects in advocating a healthy lifestyle and highlight the importance of education in dementia prevention”, commented Paula Iso-Markku.


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