Better schooling to prevent dementia 70 years later


Anja Leist wants to find out how to resist the decline of our cognitive abilities in old age. Her international research has already achieved a first result: improving education helps prevent problems occurring decades later.

Old age comes with physical and mental challenges, including cognitive decline, dementia and ailments such as Alzheimer, which have few, if no cures. What if we could do something about it in childhood? That is what Anja Leist believes, a public health professor at the University of Luxembourg.

“Sociological and psychological factors play a huge role in our cognitive reserve, meaning our capacity to resist the deterioration of our mental abilities,” explains Anja Leist. So far, scientists have identified factors explaining half of the differences observed in the population. A further 30% could be traced to factors such as education, social isolation, cardiovascular risk and midlife depression – much more than genetics, which accounts only for around 7%. “This is good news because they do represent huge potentials in terms of preventing the onset of decline later in life.”

The burden of unequal education

The researcher and her colleagues found out that reduced access to education as a child decreases that individual’s cognitive reserve in later years, a result based on their analysis of a large survey made of more than 40 000 people in Europe.

The participants were followed over decades, providing information about their health, employment, family background and education, and performing tests every few years to measure their cognitive abilities such as memory or verbal fluency years. The international team looked for associations in the data, including country-level socioeconomic factors such as GDP, human development index or education inequalities.

“All these parameters are tightly intertwined. The goal of our research is to untangle them as much as possible. Our analysis revealed the importance of education: all other things being equal, cognitive reserve at greater age is lower in countries having larger inequalities of education opportunities. The latter measures how hard it is for children to attain a higher level of education when their parents had left school early.”

“Education inequalities can arise from subtle effects, including the unconscious biases we all have. In Luxembourg, for instance, parents indicate their profession on school documents. While this information has nothing to do with the actual performance of the children, it might still have an invisible influence on the way they are assessed.”

Infographics by Ikonaut
Infographics by Ikonaut

Higher risk for women

The effect of education on cognitive decline is, in fact, driven by one subgroup: women who left school early. Their cognitive decline at old age is greater for country showing greater educational inequality. Anja Leist stresses that the school attendance counts, and not only the opportunities school favours or hinders for the subsequent years:

“Of course, having a fulfilling job which stimulates our brain will increase our cognitive reserve over the years. But studies could disentangle the two factors. They compared states in the US which changed the obligatory school system, making it last longer. This did not really influence the type of employment which people had later, but one could observe an increase of cognitive reserve years later, showing that the length of education counts.”

These results suggest that increasing educational opportunities for children growing up in less educated families could represent a good investment in the future, as it would both reduce the burden for those affected and their families generated by dementia later and its substantial societal and economic costs.

Artificial intelligence meets sociology

But these massive population surveys have not yet revealed all their information. To study the data in more detail, Anja Leist is turning to machine learning, a technique of artificial intelligence often used to analyse Big Data.

“Our aim is to find out whether one intervention – such as encouraging fitness activities amongst middle-aged women – really does prevent dementia. In an ideal study, one would divide participants into two groups: the first one going to a fitness centre once a week, the other staying at home. While this would allow for a very clear comparison, it would be too unethical to be made in practice because it would prevent a healthier lifestyle bringing proven benefits in many health aspects.”

Leist’s idea is to use vast amounts of data to simulate such comparisons.

“We can use machine learning algorithms to identify within survey pairs of persons who are practically identical for all parameters such as age, education, profession, etc. except that one of them goes to the gym, the other not. This will allow us to make what we call a causal analysis and answer the question: what would have happened to the second person if they had behaved like the first one and had started going to the gym?”

Ultimately, such analyses could help identify which prevention measure has a higher impact on which population group and help target campaigns towards the population group at risk.

“So far, we have no convincing treatment against dementia,” says Anja Leist. “I believe any promising way to prevent it should be looked at – including building educational systems that give equal opportunities to children from all backgrounds.”

More information

Anja Leist © FNR / Rick Tonizzo

About the European Research Council (ERC) 

The European Research Council, set up by the EU in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between grantees’ pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation.

More features in this series

Big Data that respects privacy

A mathematician develops new algorithms that allow the analysis of encrypted data without ever having to decipher it—a crucial point to ensure their confidentiality.

War as an electoral weapon

Politicians and voters in the countries of Ex-Yugoslavia are still referring to conflicts which happened two decades ago. A political scientist wants to understand why and how to let go of the past.

Put some sunshine in your engine

A chemist wants to use solar energy to produce hydrogen from water. His idea? To draw inspiration from the molecules that allow plants to grow and animals to breathe.

Information is not power, but above all, energy

A physicist has developed a new theory of thermodynamics to describe the microscopic world. It explains the astonishing efficiency of biological motors in our cells, improves the efficiency of chemical reactions and reveals the concrete role played by this abstract concept: information.

Kaleidoscopic microbeads to fight counterfeiting

A physicist invented a new method to authenticate objects by using the strange properties of liquid crystals. He also spun them into smart elastic bands for applications in soft robotics and wearable technologies.

ERC grants made in Luxembourg

Most scientists need no introduction to the prestigious funding schemes offered by the European Research Council – they have been described as one of the success stories of the European research funding framework and have become a global beacon of excellence in blue sky research. Luxinnovation can help researchers in Luxembourg with their ERC proposal.

A microscope faster than light

Physicist Daniele Brida develops ultrafast lasers to follow in slow-motion chemical reactions and the inner working of electronic devices. This new kind of microscope allows the observation of phenomena at the nanoscale that were until now just too fast to be seen – improving photovoltaics and electronics devices.

When the drugs don’t work

Chemical compounds can have several stable forms – with dramatic consequences. A physicist at the University of Luxembourg can predict when this can occur: he has develop methods to precisely calculate the stability of molecules. These tools are now used by hundreds of scientists worldwide. They could also help understand why the new coronavirus is so contagious.

What microbes really do in our guts

Countless microorganisms live peacefully in our body, but they also can be involved in many diseases. To find out exactly what role they play, a biologist has given himself a Herculean task: survey all the biomolecules produced by the microbes residing in our guts.

Artificial intelligence can be smarter

Machine learning algorithms seem all-powerful, but still function passively: they merely analyse the data they are fed with. Björn Ottersten makes them smarter by letting them actively probe their environment. His work aims to improve sensors of self-driving cars, sharing of mobile bandwidth and Internet traffic.

The ERC series is written by Daniel Saraga. The purpose of this ERC series is to showcase the high quality of research in Luxembourg, and how it is also attracting prestigious international funding.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies for analytics purposes. Find out more in our Privacy Statement