Proust and algebra may not sound like brain protection, but higher levels of education correlate with cognitive reserve.
A little education goes a long way toward ensuring you'll recover
from a serious traumatic brain injury. In fact, people with lots of
education are seven times more likely than high school dropouts to have
no measurable disability a year later.
"It's a very dramatic difference," says , an epidemiologist at
Johns Hopkins and the lead author of a new study. The finding suggests
that people with more education have brains that are better able to
"find ways around the damage" caused by an injury, he says.
study looked at the medical records of 769 adults who suffered
traumatic brain injuries serious enough to require an inpatient hospital
stay and rehabilitation. A year after the injury, just 10 percent of
people who didn't finish high school had no disability, compared with 39
percent of people with enough years of education to have received a
college degree. People with advanced degrees did even better.
reason for the difference may be something known as "cognitive reserve"
in the brain, Schneider says. The concept is a bit like physical
fitness, he says, which can help a person recover from a physical
injury. Similarly, a person with a lot of cognitive reserve may be
better equipped to recover from a brain injury.
The were reported Tuesday in the journal Neurology.
don't fully understand what specific brain changes are responsible for
cognitive reserve. But research on educational training suggests that it
involves strengthening the networks of brain cells involved in learning
and memory, according to a by that accompanies the study. A stronger network may be better at repairing itself or adapting to damage, Bigler says.
For several decades,
have shown that people with more education, and presumably more
cognitive reserve, are less likely to develop the memory and thinking
problems of Alzheimer's disease. The new study suggests the benefits of
education and cognitive reserve extend to brain damage caused by injury
rather than disease.
There's no guaranteed way to increase your
cognitive reserve, Schneider says. But there are hints that staying
physically and socially active helps, and that "pursuing lifelong
learning may be beneficial," he says.
One limitation of the study is that it relied on a standard ,
which relies on measures such as a person's ability to return to work.
That could have meant that a college graduate returning to an office job
was less likely to be declared disabled than, "a roofer with balance
issues," Schneider says. He adds that even people with a disability
rating of zero may still have mental or physical problems caused by
their brain injury.