New Research: People Without This Could Develop Dementia 20 Years Earlier

Updated: Jun. 17, 2024

The research indicated that people who lacked this milestone were both more at risk of developing dementia at all, and more at risk of developing dementia earlier.

You’ve probably heard that regularly practicing memory exercises, eating brain-boosting foods and taking certain supplements as you age can help keep your mind sharp for years to come, protecting against the forgetfulness that comes with deteriorating diseases like dementia.

However, that protection doesn’t have to begin with those healthy habits you form when you get older. New research from top universities around the world reveals that the lifestyle decisions you make from a young age—especially concerning education—can influence how at-risk you are for developing dementia and when symptoms might begin.

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The April 2024 review published in Demographic Research sought to examine how different levels of education impacted the age and likelihood of dementia onset. To do this, the researchers used data between 2000-2016 from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement study, “a nationally representative longitudinal study of older adults in the United States,” according to the review.

The review included 15,988 adults, 3,581 of whom at some point experienced dementia symptoms. The researchers looked at the age at which most people first showed symptoms, analyzing whether it differed by education level, race and gender. This helped them understand if having more education was linked to a later and more predictable age of developing dementia, regardless of someone’s race or gender.

They found that overall, people who did not complete high school had a “significantly higher” risk of developing dementia at a younger age, with most people at that education level displaying symptoms before the age of 65. In contrast, people with a college diploma typically experienced dementia onset around age 85.

People without a high school degree were also “dramatically” more at risk of developing dementia in their lifetime at all, with women slightly more at risk than men. Men without a high school education had a 41.83% lifetime risk of dementia, compared to 21.62% for men who graduated from college. Women without a high school diploma had a 45.43% lifetime risk of dementia, compared to 26.52% for women who graduated college.

The researchers did find a disparity in risk depending on race, noting in the review that “the lifetime risk of even college-educated Black adults is similar to that of white adults with only a high school diploma.” Overall, white adults who only graduated high school had a 28.02% lifetime dementia risk, while those who graduated college had a 23.36% lifetime dementia risk. Meanwhile, Black adults with just a high school education had a 44.15% risk of developing dementia, compared to 29.78% for Black adults who completed college.

Still, the research makes it crystal clear: The more education you get, the better protected you’ll likely be from dementia down the road. Finishing high school, going to college or obtaining an advanced degree can dramatically reduce your lifetime risk of developing dementia and delay those first symptoms of memory loss until much later in life. While inequalities in dementia risk exist across race and gender, education appears to be a powerful equalizer that can safeguard your brain.