UCL-led study highlights education access and cognitive ageing link in women

A new study led by University College London (UCL) suggests a link between improved access to education for women and reduced differences in cognitive ageing between sexes.

According to UCL, the new ‘large cohort’ study found that improvements in UK girls’ access to education over the last century may have also potentially led to ‘reduced sex disparities’ in dementia risk.

The study, which included collaboration with researchers from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, is claimed to be the first of its kind on this scale.

Funders included the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, the UK Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, and the National Institute for Health Research.

UCL says that although previous research indicated women had a higher risk of dementia than men, new research suggests ‘historical inequalities’ in education may have contributed to differences in cognitive ageing.

The study, published in The Lancet Public Health, saw researchers investigate the impacts of education and birth on the ‘memory’ and ‘fluency’ trajectories of 15,924 participants. All those that took part were born between 1930 and 1955.

Memory was assessed by the swiftness of timed word recall from a list, while fluency was tested by asking participants to list as many animals as they could within one minute. Poor performance in these types of test are associated with dementia.

The results show that women outperformed men on the memory test, with notable differences for women born more recently, as well as slower rates of memory decline in women.

In the older birth cohort, women had poorer fluency scores than men. Yet women born later had better scores than their male counterparts, with researchers claiming this could be partially explained by younger women’s increase in education level.

Researchers concluded that greater educational opportunities could be ‘driving improvements in midlife cognition for women’ and ‘may therefore reduce sex differences in dementia risk for future generations’.

Lead author, PhD candidate Mikaela Bloomberg, said: “Our findings suggest that among people educated in the first half of the 20th century, gender inequalities in access to education led to lower education levels among women and this likely negatively impacted cognitive ageing and therefore increased the risk of dementia for women.

“Our study suggests this might change in the future, as disparities in access to education decrease, highlighting the importance of equitable access to education for health, particularly in countries where access to education for women and girls is still limited.”

Find out more about the study via UCL or The Lancet.