Continuious Learning, Higher Education, Can Delay Onset of MS Symptoms

A new study published in the latest edition of Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience finds that multiple sclerosis sufferers can alleviate some of the symptoms associated with the disease by challenging themselves to never stop learning. The study follows up on the heels of prior research that’s shown that continual learning can have positive effect on the health of the brain.

According to Science Daily, continuous learning can take many forms. MS sufferers can attempt something as ambitious as enrolling in a higher education program to something as simple as filling out crossword puzzles every day. The key is to keep the brain constantly challenged and exercised.

The new study, like some before it, looked at how the brain worked to compensate for neurological damage inflicted by MS. Unlike previous studies, however, the researchers tried to assess how well the brain was coping not via vocabulary tests, but by using the subjects’ education level and professional attainment.

They also evaluated both educational and occupational experience, hypothesizing that an individual’s lifetime occupational attainment could also be considered a good proxy of CR, similar to the way in which higher occupational attainment reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The second aim of the study was to investigate the possible role of perceived fatigue. Fatigue can have a great negative influence on daily life, so that higher perceived fatigue might result in lower cognitive performance.

Fifty clinically diagnosed patients took part in the research; 17 had fewer than 13 years of education and 33 who had 13 years or more. Standard exams used to judge vigilance, alertness and ability to concentrate on two tasks at once produced no difference between the two groups.

However, on a more involved set of tests, the higher-educated subjects not only outperformed their less-educated peers, but performed as well as a control group of subjects that didn’t have MS. Surprisingly, level of professional achievement, unlike level of education, played no role in how well or how poorly MS patients performed on the tests.

“These results indicate that low education is a risk factor for cognitive impairment in people with neurological disease such as MS, whereas a high educational level could be considered a protective factor from disease-associated cognitive impairment,” observes lead investigator Elisabetta Làdavas, PhD, Director of the Center for Studies and Research in Cognitive Neuroscience, Cesena and Professor of Neuropsychology at the Department of Psychology of the University of Bologna, Italy. She concludes that “The protective effects of education on the cognitive profile of MS patients should be considered in longitudinal studies of cognitive functions, and in therapeutic attempts to improve cognition in these patients.”