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College-educated people recover better from a brain injury

College-educated people recover better from a brain injury

College education is often seen as an investment that will pay back for a lifetime, as it helps have better job opportunities or earn more money. It may also improve recovery after traumatic brain injury, according to a new study.

The study published in Neurology on April 23rd, 2014 suggests that the more years of education people have, the more likely they will recover from a traumatic brain injury.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that people who had some college education or a college degree were more likely to go back to work or school disability-free after a traumatic brain injury, than people with no high school diploma.

Earlier studies had shown that education might have a protective effect when it comes to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Scientists have theorized that education leads to greater “cognitive reserve,” which researchers described in the Neurology paper as the idea that “individuals have inherent differences in their vulnerability to the effects of aging or brain legions, and perhaps also in their capacity to adapt or compensate for such processes.”

In other words, the brains of people with greater cognitive reserve may be more resilient and have greater ability to keep functioning in the face of damage. Researchers said that the theory goes that people with higher levels of education have greater cognitive reserve.

“Added capacity allows us to either work around the damaged areas or to adapt,” said Eric B. Schneider, an assistant professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Schneider and his colleagues suspected that cognitive reserve might play an equally important role in helping people rehab from acute brain damage that results from falls, car crashes and other accidents as it does in Alzheimer’s disease.

For the new study, the researchers examined the medical records of 769 people who were at least 23 years old when they experienced a traumatic brain injury. Participants were followed for a year or more after their injury. Of these people, 24 percent did not finish high school, 51 percent had 12 to 15 years of education or had finished high school or some post-secondary education, and 25 percent had at least an undergraduate college degree or 16 or more years of education.

Researchers found an association between greater education levels and greater likelihood of returning to work or school a year later with no disability after the traumatic brain injury. Specifically, just 10 percent of those who did not have a high school diploma were able to go back to school or work disability-free a year after the injury, compared with 31 percent of people who had some college education. Those with college degrees were most likely to go back to school or work without disability – 39 percent of them did so.

In addition, the odds of living disability-free after a traumatic brain injury were increased nine-fold for people who had 20 or more years of education, compared with those with fewer than 12 years of education, the researchers found.

While the study shows associations between education and cognitive reserve and recovery from a brain injury, the researchers noted that education is only a surrogate for cognitive reserve, and not a direct marker.

“While available published research supports the construct of education as a marker of reserve, it remains unclear whether higher education achievement is causatively linked to great cognitive reserve, results from it, or both,” they wrote in the study. “Education attainment itself is not solely reflective of intellectual or cognitive abilities. Motivation to succeed and self-discipline, as well as socioeconomic status, are likely also associated with higher levels of education and may have important roles in determining the degree of post-TBI recovery.”

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For a brain boost, spend time with your grandchildren … but only once in a while

For a brain boost, spend time with your grandchildren … but only once in a while

For a brain boost, spend time with your grandchildren … but only once in a while

Grandparents often say that spending time with their grandchild gives them great joy. What they may not realize is that their brains can actually benefit from the interaction. A new study finds grandchildren keep grandmothers mentally sharp.

The study, published on April 7th, 2014 in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society, finds post-menopausal women who spend time taking care of grandkids lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders. However, too much time with the grandchildren – five or more days a week – appeared to make grandma more likely to lose her marbles.

“We know that older women who are socially engaged have better cognitive function and a lower risk of developing dementia later, but too much of a good thing just might be bad,” North American Menopause Society (NAMS) executive director Dr. Margery Gass said.

The research was led by Katherine Burn, BSc, of the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. The researchers used information from the Women’s Healthy Aging Project, which involved questionnaires administered by trained field workers in 2004. They asked whether the women, aged 57 to 68, had grandchildren, whether they cared for them, how often they cared for them if they did and whether their children had been particularly demanding of them in the past 12 months.

The women’s cognitive abilities were assessed using the Symbol-Digit Modalities Test (SDMT), California Verbal Learning Test, and Tower of London. In addition to these three different tests of mental sharpness, the women also told the researchers whether or not they felt as if their own children had been especially demanding of them over the past year. Of the 120 grandmothers in the study, those who cared for their grandchildren one day per week performed best on two of those three tests.

However, much to the authors’ surprise, grandmothers who cared for their grandchildren for at least five days per week did significantly worse on a test that measured those women’s mental processing speed and working memory. The investigation also revealed that the more time grandmothers spent taking care of grandkids, they more they felt that their own children had been more demanding of them, suggesting that mood could be a factor in this finding.

The authors say their findings could indicate that highly frequent grandparenting predicts lower mental performance. They are planning to follow up with additional research.

Because grandmothering is such an important and common social role for postmenopausal women, we need to know more about its effects on their future health,“ said Dr. Margery Gass. “This study is a good start.”

This study was small, according to Jim McAleer, MPA, president of the Alzheimer’s Association, but the results did not surprise him. He said in an email that other studies have shown that social engagement and exercise (and it’s assumed there is some exercise involved in caring for children) benefit the mind. “It’s surprising that longer periods of care impacted memory function. Perhaps extend physical exertion in those cases caused other health problems that impacted memory, or increased stress — a known risk factor for memory loss.”

Peter Strong, PhD, of the Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy, wrote in an email that he believes the inner feeling of self-worth that comes from being socially engaged with grandchildren is what’s important. As for the negative effect of spending too much time caring for their grandchildren? “Once a week is enough to develop this inner belief; any more than this may create the opposite belief of not being physically or mentally able to fulfill the expectations of extended child minding and this will undermine the positive belief of self-worth.”

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