Genetics study adds further evidence that education reduces risk of Alzheimer’s disease

8/12/2017

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The theory that education protects against Alzheimer’s disease has been given further weight by new research from the University of Cambridge, funded by the European Union. The study is published in The BMJ.

Many studies have shown that certain risk factors are more common in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but determining whether these factors actually cause Alzheimer’s is more difficult
- Hugh Markus

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia. Its chief hallmark is the build of ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ of misshapen proteins, which lead to the gradual death of brain cells. People affected by Alzheimer’s experience memory and communication problems, disorientation, changes in behaviour and progressive loss of independence.

The causes of Alzheimer’s are largely unknown, and attempts to develop drug treatments to halt or reverse its effects have been disappointing. This has led to increasing interest in whether it is possible to reduce the number of cases of Alzheimer’s disease by tackling common risk factors that can be modified. In fact, research from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health has shown that the incidence of Alzheimer’s is falling in the UK, probably due to improvements in education, and smoking reduction and better diet and exercise.

“Many studies have shown that certain risk factors are more common in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but determining whether these factors actually cause Alzheimer’s is more difficult,” says Professor Hugh Markus from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge.

“For example, many studies have shown that the more years spent in full time education, the lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. But it is difficult to unravel whether this is an effect of education improving brain function, or whether it’s the case that people who are more educated tend to come from more wealthy backgrounds and therefore have a reduction in other risk factors that cause Alzheimer’s disease.”

Professor Markus led a study to unpick these factors using a technique known as ‘Mendelian randomisation’. This involves looking at an individual’s DNA and comparing genes associated with environmental risk factors – for example, genes linked to educational attainment or to smoking – and seeing which of these genes are also associated with Alzheimer’s disease. If a gene is associated with both, then it provides strong evidence that this risk factor really does cause the disease.

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Credit: Cambridge University

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

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The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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