Climbing the Corporate Ladder of Brain Fitness
Higher levels of education and more intellectually challenging careers associate with lower rates of Alzheimer's disease. However, this doesn't mean you need a PhD to stave off cognitive decline. Commitment to life-long learning can be done without formal education and boost your brain fitness as well.
Copyright (c) 2008 BrainFit For Life
Does your job have anything to do with your odds of getting Alzheimer's disease down the road? Studies have come out recently linking intellectually challenging careers to reduced risk of dementia. Other studies link education level to cognitive health in later years. Overall, people with more education have lower rates of Alzheimer's disease than those with less education.
This really isn't that surprising if you think about it. We know that the more you use your brain, the stronger it gets. Just like muscles in your arms and legs, the brain gets more fit when you work it out. Higher education usually means more mentally stimulating jobs and that keeps your brain fit.
But that doesn't mean that you have to go to graduate school to stay mentally active. Big studies look at large groups of people. On average, when you look at lots of people those with higher levels of education have more intellectually challenging jobs. So overall, they have lower rates of dementia. However, you can be a high-school drop out and still do what's necessary to keep your brain fit. Just don't be average.
You can maintain an active mind by committing yourself to life-long learning. It doesn't take a formal education to teach yourself new skills, read new books and continually challenge your mind - it ain't rocket science.
There is, however, a flip-side to this coin. Even though higher education predicts lower odds of getting Alzheimer's disease, those with higher education who do get Alzheimer's, decline much more rapidly and die sooner than those with less education. Remember, again, this is based on big number averages and is not necessarily predictive for any one person. Still, on average if you have an intellectually challenging career, your odds of getting dementia are lower, but if you do get it, your odds of rapid decline are greater.
At first, this might seem paradoxical. But I think there is a likely explanation for these seemingly odd data. It all relates back to the cognitive reserve theory, which we have discussed in the past.
Essentially, cognitive reserve is something you create throughout your life. The more you learn and the more you experience, the more you create cognitive reserve. This is like 'extra' brain circuits to accomplish intellectual tasks.
Think of it like a city building multiple bridges across a river. If you only have one bridge to cross the river and it gets knocked out by a freak storm, you can't get traffic to the other side. If, however, you've created reserve routes to cross the river with multiple bridges and one gets knocked out, you can divert traffic across the other bridges.
This is the same with brain circuits. If you've created multiple circuits through a variety of experiences you have different ways to accomplish the same task. If one takes a hit due to age-related damage, you can divert thoughts through different circuits and not really notice a problem.
So people with higher education and more challenging jobs may have reserve brain circuits. That means that even though we may all experience the same age-related damage, someone with more cognitive reserve will show less cognitive decline. There are also ways to minimize the age-related damage through healthy living, but that's another topic.
So why would people with more reserve show more rapid decline once dementia sets in? Again, this makes sense if you think about it. People with high levels of reserve who get dementia must have experienced severe damage that took out all their bridges. Damage of this severity will take them down quickly.
However, it's an illusion. Since studies only compare people diagnosed with dementia, they may be comparing apples to oranges. On average, the people with high reserve (mentally challenging careers in these studies) who have Alzheimer's disease have likely experienced a lot more damage than, on average, the people with low reserve who have Alzheimer's.
This would explain why people with more challenging careers would have fewer cases of Alzheimer's; and also why people with higher levels of education who do get Alzheimer's, decline much more quickly.
Overall, it's better to boost your odds of not getting dementia in the first place by doing what's necessary to challenge your mind on a daily basis. Commit yourself to life-long learning and stay mentally active to build more bridges. Couple this with quality nutrition, plenty of exercise and enough sleep, and you will also minimize the storms that create the damage that can damage your bridges.
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