12 July 1999

Schooled Elderly See More Brain Shrinkage

by Kate Melville

A new medical study has shown that older people with heaps of education display greater brain shrinkage than those who spent less time schooling. But the study also concludes that higher education levels give the elderly more protection from dementia and memory loss. In effect, perhaps what you gain from one, you lose on the other.

"Our brain cells are dying, but if we have educated ourselves, that provides a buffering effect such that our functioning remains intact," said Dr. Edward Coffey, chair of the Henry Ford Health System Department of Psychiatry and principal investigator for the study. Dr. Coffey has obviously studied quite a bit, but with little, if any side effects.

The research, published in the July issue of the journal Neurology, examined 320 healthy men and women from 66-90 years old. Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers measured brain size by tracking cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the outside of the brain.

The study found that elderly people with 16 years of education had 8-10 percent more fluid around their brains than did those who had only gone to school for four years.

Coffey was quick to point out that the study did not conclude that lots of education causes smaller brains. In fact, he said everyone's brain starts shrinking beginning at young adulthood. On average, a person's brain will shrink 2.5 percent every 10 years.

Coffey likened the effect of a high amount of schooling on the brain to exercising a muscle to keep it in shape.

"Everybody has some shrinkage. We're able to tolerate it to different extents. If you have more education, the shrinkage causes less problems for you than those with less education," he said.