Higher levels of education may counter the genetic risk of Alzheimer's disease among older black adults, a new study indicates.
"This suggests that education can buffer the effects of the APOE e4 gene on episodic memory retention and working memory, which are usually the first types of memory to be affected in people with Alzheimer's," said study first author Jet Vonk. She is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University, in New York City.
Several studies, mainly in white people, have shown that the higher a person's level of education, the lower their risk of dementia, even among those who are genetically at higher risk. But none of those studies have looked at black Americans, a group with fewer years of education, greater prevalence of the APOE e4 gene, and higher rates of dementia than whites, the researchers noted.
The new study included 849 black people, average age 69, with various educational levels. None of the them had dementia, but about 38 percent had the APOE e4 gene, the biggest genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Even before Alzheimer's is diagnosed, older people with the APOE e4 gene tend to have poorer brain function than those without it, according to the researchers.
The participants in this study underwent memory and thinking ("cognitive") tests. Among those with more than a high school diploma, APOE e4 carriers did just as well on two key memory tests as non-carriers, and this was particularly evident in women.
The study was published online recently in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.
"There's frustratingly little we can do to lessen the risk of Alzheimer's disease, but education appears to be one of the few interventions that we know works," Vonk said.
The findings suggest a way to reduce rates of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia.
"The important point is that education is a modifiable risk factor for cognitive decline. It's something that we can target with public policies that increase access to higher education," Vonk said.
"We also hope to examine which other social and environmental factors later in life, from your 20s through your 60s, may help buffer cognitive decline associated with the APOE e4 gene in this population," she added.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more on Alzheimer's disease risk.
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