Dr. John Robert Warren

Dr. John Robert Warren

The University of Minnesota will lead a $12.8 million project, funded over the course of five years by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), to study how educational experiences in adolescence impact cognitive functioning and deter the development of dementia later in life. NIA is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The project, led by the University’s Minnesota Population Center (MPC), will bring together a group of sociologists, neuropsychologists, epidemiologists and survey researchers to understand the connection between education and cognitive function over the life course and to determine how racial, ethnic, and other social inequalities in education may lead to inequalities in rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive impairment. In addition to the University of Minnesota, the team includes researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Columbia University.

“Cognitive impairments and dementias are a huge and increasing burden on people's lives, the healthcare system, and the economy,” said principal investigator, Dr. John Robert Warren, director of MPC and professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts. “Preventing cognitive impairment later in life by understanding – and potentially changing – the conditions of early life is a promising way to alleviate these burdens for future generations.”

Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the US, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. About 5.8 million Americans are currently living with the disease, and that number is projected to grow to nearly 14 million by 2050. 

The research team will interview and collect genetic information from the 25,000 surviving members of the High School & 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 – to assess their cognitive function. While HS&B panelists will be in their late 50s during the interviews and Alzheimer's disease is rare at this age, milder forms of cognitive impairment are likely to be more common among the cohort and may foreshadow the later development of more serious impairments.

Using these data, the team will examine how social and educational disparities in adolescence lead to racial or ethnic differences in cognitive impairment at midlife, how these effects manifest over the course of a person’s life, and how educational and social advantages may help people genetically predisposed toward dementia delay or avoid its onset. Ultimately, the researchers aim to inform efforts to develop strategies that reduce cognitive impairments among older people.

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