Exploring Education’s Role in Keeping Alzheimer’s at Bay

As the US population ages, Alzheimer’s disease is becoming an ever more pressing health challenge.

The irreversible brain disorder, which slowly inhibits memory and thinking skills, is the sixth leading cause of death in the US. It currently affects 5.8 million Americans, with projections reaching nearly 14 million by the year 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

A new study, led by the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Population Center (MPC), aims to explore how a person’s educational experiences early in life affect their cognitive functioning—and the possible development of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia—later in life. The $12.8 million project will be funded over the course of five years by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.

To best decipher the connection between education and cognitive function, the project will bring together an interdisciplinary group of leading sociologists, neuropsychologists, epidemiologists, and survey researchers. In addition to the University of Minnesota, the team includes researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Columbia University.

“Cognitive impairments and dementias are a huge and increasing burden on people's lives, the healthcare system, and the economy,” said principal investigator John Robert Warren, Ph.D., director of MPC and professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts, in a news release. “Preventing cognitive impairment later in life by understanding—and potentially changing—the conditions of early life is a promising way to alleviate these burdens for future generations.”

The research team will interview and collect genetic information from a nationally representative group of 25,000 people who have been interviewed on several occasions since they were high school students in 1980. The team will assess their cognitive function and look for milder forms of cognitive impairment that may foreshadow the later development of Alzheimer’s or other dementias. They will also determine how racial, ethnic, and other social inequalities in their education may contribute to inequalities in rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive impairment.

Ultimately, the research aims to inform efforts to proactively reduce cognitive impairments among older people.

Read the news release to learn more.


The Minnesota Population Center is part of the University’s Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation, an interdisciplinary research institute that advances knowledge of societies and populations across time and space, including economic and demographic behavior, health, well-being, and human-environment interactions.