Senior citizens who have at least a high school education do not suffer major cognitive loss as compared to those who do not have such schooling, a new study has found.
However, the study also found that such people die sooner after the loss becomes apparent.
"These findings are consistent with the idea that those with more education may process tasks more efficiently or use other compensatory mechanisms that delay cognitive impairment or delay our ability to detect impairment," said USC Davis School of Gerontology professor Eileen Crimmins, co-author of the study.
Using a nationally representative survey, researchers tracked more than 7,000 people over the age of 70 for seven years.
They found that a 70-year old person with at least 12 years of education can expect to live 14.1 more years without cognitive impairment, two-and-a-half years more than 70-year olds with fewer than 12 years of education.
They also found that a 70-year old person with at least 12 years of education can expect to spend 1 year of remaining life with impairment, about 7 months less than a person with fewer years of education.
"One implication of these findings is that as education increases in the population, the length of time spent with cognitive impairment should be reduced," Crimmins said.
However, the researchers found that those with more education appeared to exhibit more severe cognitive impairment, which may include memory loss, loss of language or disorientation, and to be in worse.
"Surprisingly, the risk of dying among those with cognitive impairment is generally higher for the more educated than for the low education group, even though the possibility of becoming cognitively impaired is lower for the higher education group," Crimmins said.
Still, the researchers found that there is some chance of recovery from severe cognitive loss in large populations.
According to the study, overall, about 11 percent of the mentally impaired will recover.
The researchers hypothesize that those with treatable conditions such as depression and those recovering from strokes or cancer treatments are more likely to regain mental abilities.
Specifically, they found that stroke is almost twice as prevalent among the highly educated who recover than among those who remain impaired.
"The length of life with cognitive impairment will increase as total life expectancy increases, unless the age at onset of cognitive impairment is delayed, perhaps by addressing modifiable risk factors," Crimmins said.
"Cognitive impairment is a major health problem in old age and an area of growing concern for population health," she added.
The study is published in the June 2008 issue of the Journal of Aging and Health.