Poor educational quality and attainment has long been suspected as a risk factor for cognitive problems later in life. Now the University of Minnesota is leading a national study to find out.
Using a $12.8 million federal grant, researchers will contact 25,000 people who were originally part of U.S. Department of Education surveys in the 1960s and 1970s when they were in school.
Cognitive and memory tests will determine whether these people, now in their 50s, have signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. That data will be checked against their childhood education and experiences.
“There are all kinds of ideas about early life experiences and when or who they might impact in terms of cognitive decline and dementia,” said John Robert Warren, director of the university’s Minnesota Population Center and leader of the study.
A link to childhood trauma or education level could help explain why black people are twice as likely as white people to suffer Alzheimer’s, according to estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association. Hispanic people are 1.5 times more likely than white people to suffer the debilitating neurological disease as well.
Both minority groups have historically suffered higher poverty and lower educational attainment rates in the U.S.
Questions about the link between early experiences and dementia later in life have been difficult to answer, because researchers lacked data about the childhoods of elderly people with cognitive problems.
Warren said he has worked in the distinct worlds of aging and educational research, and realized the federal education surveys were an untapped resource. The first step was a test phase five years ago by which Warren and colleagues contacted people from the 1980 federal education survey.
“We realized we could do it,” he said, “and then the question became, ‘what is the most important thing you could do with this kind of study?’ ”
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Texas at Austin, and Columbia University will join the study, funded by the National Institute on Aging.
Identifying a link could underscore the importance of child well-being, Warren said. “It becomes a way of thinking about prevention — the idea that education policy can be thought of as health care policy, that investing in schools and better programming in schools is a way to help disadvantaged people avoid diseases” and help the nation avoid medical costs.