Blogging with Parkinson's

A personal perspective on Young Onset Parkinson's

Intelligence and Parkinson’s (2)


In my last post, I discovered that at least one group of researchers had found that your risk of developing Parkinson’s increases with your level of education (which is standing in for intelligence as I’m not sure how trustworthy intelligence tests really are). There seemed to be several ways to read this finding:

  • education is bad for your neurological health
    (I think this one is unlikely and it was never actually suggested by any reputable source anyway)
  • regular physical activity, such as that required by the type of job that tends to be filled by the slightly less well-educated, is good for your neurological health and may help to protect against Parkinson’s
    (this is rather more plausible, to my mind)
  • smoking, which is – apparently – a habit indulged in more frequently by the less well-educated, is good for your neurological health and, as has apparently been shown before, may help to protect against Parkinson’s
    (I detest the smell of cigarette smoke and really do not want this to be true because, as everybody knows, smoking is genuinely bad for your physical health)
  • this could just be a coincidence; we need more research before we believe it
    (apparently, previous studies had identified career paths which carried increased risk of Parkinson’s; these were identified as teaching and physics, along with the featured study’s risky medical career. However, this is science, and more research is always a Good Thing, so I wholeheartedly agree with this point)

And there are, no doubt, many other conclusions to be drawn.

But this post has a subtly different focus. When I went looking for those other papers that supposedly supported the idea that being educated increases your risk of Parkinson’s, and while I was not finding them (I’m sure that they exist – it may just be that I’m not looking in the right way), I found a number of other papers that looked at the relationship between education and Parkinson’s after diagnosis.

In 2009, Sciencedaily ran an article on a study that reported how better educated Parkies tended to seek medication sooner.

“A possible explanation is that higher education may be associated with greater occupational demands and an increased need for symptomatic control,” the authors write. “However, one might expect that occupations placing higher demands on physical abilities (usually associated with lower education levels) would be associated with a more pressing need for symptomatic control. An alternate possibility is that patients with higher education are likely to be better advocates for their health care needs and play a more active role in medical decision-making.

[…] “The impact of the patient’s education level on clinical management is an unexpected finding and merits further investigation.”

– from the Sciencedaily article

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t find this very surprising. I think that the authors’ “alternate possibility” is the most likely reason – better educated people probably would be better advocates for their own health care. I suspect that this is because continued education tends to promote several things, including:

  • The ability to research a subject independently and so discover that there is medication that could help.
  • The self-confidence to request medication.
  •  The financial wherewithal to pay for said medicine if there is no state-sponsored health service like the UK’s NHS; alternatively, it may be that better-educated people are more likely to have health insurance schemes in place.

It may also be that those of us who spent years in Higher Education are more institutionalised than the free spirits who left school at 16, more committed to society  as a whole, and more trusting of other people’s (properly qualified) expertise – and so more inclined to believe that a medical solution will be available. We may also be more introverted or more self-aware (all that time spent alone with our books and our essays) and so be more inclined to think about our symptoms and to conclude that they need dealing with. Or, I suppose you could say that we’re less prepared to try and tough it out.

Another, more recent study, looks at the cognitive effects of Parkinson’s and their relation to the patient’s level of education. Here, at least, there is some good news for the overeducated: we’re less likely to suffer cognitive problems.The article is Polish, but the authors (or the publishers) have kindly provided an English translation of the abstract below the Polish text; and it’s a nice abstract – a concise description of the research, complete with a brief conclusion that states:

The higher educational level […] was associated with a lower risk of cognitive deterioration. We conclude that higher education might have protective effects in cognitive decline in PD.

– “Education and cognitive function in people with Parkinson’s disease”
Anna Kierzynka, Radosław Kaźmierski, Wojciech Kozubski
Neurologia i Neurochirurgia Polska 2011; 45, 1: 24–31

The abstract doesn’t speculate as to why this should be – that, no doubt, is dealt with in the full paper. In Polish. So l did some speculation of my own, and it seems quite reasonable to me that education “protects” against cognitive impairment by promoting the habit of thinking, and that the adage “use it or lose it” applies here, as in so many other cases. Brains need exercise, too!

Which, of course, means that this could well be good news for anyone who is inclined to think, to investigate, to puzzle, to read…


3 thoughts on “Intelligence and Parkinson’s (2)

  1. Interesting… I seem to remember a report on the BBC site last year (or so) looking at Alzheimer’s and Education.

    What that found (based on my own 40+ memory) was that, surprisingly, the better-educated had a noticeably shorter life-expectancy after Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This surprised the researchers somewhat and they went a step further by looking at the physical state of the brain at the time of diagnosis.

    What they then found was that the brain of a better-educated person was much more degenerated at the point of diagnosis than of a less-educated person. They concluded that better education enables the brain to maintain function at a higher level despite the deterioration. Effectively, once the person is diagnosed, the brain is so much further along the road that you simply can’t live as long as someone whose diagnosis occurs with a lower level of deterioration.

    All of which would tend to back up your Polish people – if you keep using your brain, you will be able to keep going longer with less grey matter (literally!) working.

    The really good news, IIRC, from the Alzheimer’s report was that it was the level of brain activity that mattered, not the simple level of education; so reading, crosswords, Sudoku, chess and other mental activity could create the same protective effect even if you don’t have a PhD and, as long as you start doing them before you actually get Alzheimer’s, pretty much no matter when in life you start.

    I’m hoping that ‘constructing diplomatic answers to questions asked by 7 year-olds’ is in the same category – it certainly ought to be!

    • Well, if ‘constructing diplomatic answers to questions asked by 7 year-olds’ generates a suitably high level of brain activity (and I’m sure that it does), then I should be alright, too 🙂

  2. There’re a few more options. Higher educated / more intelligent people: are more likely to pursue medical help *; may be benefiting from a gene variant which also makes them smarter but also more likely to develop Parkinson’s (see Asperger’s list of premorbid personality traits – low counts bad, medium counts good, high counts very very bad); may be more likely to exhaust their brain in some way (q.v. glucose intolerance due to pancreatic failure after years of excess glucose consumption).

    All of these and the above need to be analysed and ruled in/out.

    * Which reminds me of my current favourite joke: There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data sets…

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