Early education may affect cognitive abilities of seniors, UAB expert says

Research findings from data in 1930s Alabama underscore the lifelong effects of disparities in educational opportunities.

Childhood education can predict cognitive performance in later life, says new University of Alabama at Birmingham research published online in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. In this rare look at the quality of education, researchers reported high student-teacher ratios in schools are associated with worse cognitive function while a longer school year is associated with better cognitive function in older adults.

education_story“Many studies have found that having fewer years of education is associated with a number of negative health outcomes throughout life, including Alzheimer’s disease,” says Michael Crowe, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Psychology and lead author of the study. “However, little research has explored the potential impact of quality of education on aging. This issue is particularly relevant for older blacks who grew up during the era of segregated schools, when disparities in educational opportunities were even starker than they are today.”  

Crowe says several explanations for the effect of education on cognitive aging exist, each with some support. First, early schooling may provide intellectual stimulation during a critical period of brain development that could enhance brain function throughout life. Second, those who have more education may have jobs or leisure activities that lead them to be more mentally active and delay cognitive decline. Or those with more or better education may be good test-takers and perform well on cognitive tests despite subtle problems in brain function.

The research, funded by the Deep South Resource Center for Minority Aging Research, was ancillary to the UAB Study of Aging, a longitudinal study of community-dwelling older adults in central Alabama. Crowe says it is a rare look at the effect of quality of education in a field in which previous studies have focused on years of education, and the findings underscore the lifelong effects of disparities in educational opportunities.

Little research has explored the potential impact of quality of education on aging. This issue is particularly relevant for older blacks who grew up during the era of segregated schools, when disparities in educational opportunities were even starker than they are today. 

Crowe and the research team studied 433 participants, 52 percent of whom were black. Reported location of early schooling was linked to county-level data from Alabama State Department of Education records in the 1930s.

“Even though everyone we studied grew up in Alabama, we found a broad range in funding, teacher-student ratio and length of school year both within and between the black schools and white schools across the 40 counties in which participants went to school,” says Crowe. “We saw some school years with less than 100 days per year and others with around 180 days per year. On average, school-year length was 32 days shorter for black schools. You could have one person with 10 years of education that technically went to school a couple of years longer than someone else with the same education level but on the low end of the school-year spectrum.”

Crowe says poor-quality education increases the potential for misdiagnoses among seniors because cognitive test scores typically are compared to the average performance of others the same age and education level. Below-average scores could lead to lost financial independence and medical decision-making powers or premature commitment to a nursing home.

“A worrisome score on a cognitive screening test always should be followed with a more in-depth medical and neuropsychological evaluation because factors such as vision, hearing, lack of sleep, depression and medications can cause low cognitive performance. Health-care professionals without geriatric training are more likely to misdiagnose Alzheimer’s disease based on brief screening tests,” Crowe says.

He suggests that people could undergo cognitive testing at age 65, when the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other common forms of dementia still is relatively low. “This creates a baseline that could be used if you later become worried about changes in memory or other abilities.”

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