High school experiences follow you long after you’ve graduated, shaping your professional success and even your health. Now, researchers are investigating how it could contribute to your future brain health and maybe even impact your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s Disease.
University of Texas at Austin sociologist Chandra Muller researches how educational experiences shape life course outcomes, an area of expertise that helped garner $12.9 million from the National Institute on Aging for a national research project on how racial, ethnic, and other social inequalities in educational experiences impact cognitive functioning later in life.
“A major puzzle for researchers is to understand why and how disparities in education, race and ethnicity and even region impact who is protected against cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease,” says Muller, a faculty research associate in the university’s Population Research Center. “Even though most people have good cognitive functioning in their 50s, some show early indicators of impairment. Almost certainly the social environment they grow up in shapes who functions well as they age. And of course, genes also matter.”
The five-year study, led by University of Minnesota sociologist John Robert Warren, will rely on data from 25,000 surviving members of the High School and Beyond (HS&B) cohort — a nationally representative group of people who have been interviewed on several occasions since they were high school students in 1980, and a dataset Muller has a particular affinity towards.
Muller has worked closely the HS&B dataset since her first research experience as a graduate student, studying under the principal investigator who started the HS&B study for the US Department of Education. Recently, she led the HS&B Midlife Follow-Up study. And now, she looks forward to using the dataset once again with researchers from University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Colombia University to study how early disparities impact cognitive functioning at midlife.
To learn more about the study and how it could help move the needle forward on Alzheimer’s and dementia research, we asked Muller the following:
How common is cognitive impairment? When in the lifecycle do most people begin to experience it?
Cognitive impairment is relatively rare among people in their mid to late 50s, the age of our sample. But it presents disproportionately in certain population subgroups and among people in certain regions of the country like the “stroke belt.” We expect that fewer than 10 percent of our sample members will show early signs of mild cognitive impairment. Additionally, our study involves collecting other indicators of risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s, including genetic.
Are there certain populations more susceptible to cognitive impairments?
People who grow up in the stroke belt are at higher risk, and African Americans are at higher risk. Our study is a national sample and has a relatively large number of people who grew up in the stroke belt and also a large number of college educated African Americans. We are hoping that we can disentangle the effects of education from race and place in understanding the risks.
Where do you think these sorts of population discrepancies stem from?
Almost certainly the disparities are due to social factors in the environment from childhood on. We just don’t know what factors. We’re nearly certain that education is a major determinant, but don’t know if it’s because people who are predisposed to Alzheimer’s in later life also complete less education or if education is actually protective. If we did understand the social and environmental factors then we could design more effective policies to keep people healthy.
How will the work you are doing for the $12.9 million NIA project transform the way we diagnose and treat cognitive impairments?
Alzheimer’s is a complex disease that is devastating to the individual and also the entire family of the victim. In developing this project, I’ve been blown away by the passion of advocates for funding research on the disease. I suspect that the roots of the passion are in part related to how devastating the disease can be to both its victims and their loved ones. Our work has been focused on identifying factors, especially related to education, that delay onset or may even prevent it altogether. Interestingly, there are people who have the genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease and never develop symptoms of the disease. Understanding environmental factors like education that protect people could impact large numbers of people.