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.
“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.
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…