Living with dementia can be a frightening and fatiguing experience. People with the brain condition often suffer memory loss, confusion about time and place, and struggle to carry out day-to-day tasks. 

Studies show that substance misuse and tumors can trigger various forms of the disease, but there’s a lesser-known risk factor appearing in research: quality of education. 

A study published in JAMA Neurology in February found that people who attend school in states with lower education quality are more likely to develop dementia later in life. 

The research by Kaiser Permanente revealed that its Black study participants were overly exposed to poor education compared to its white participants — a trend that impacts Black students nationwide. 

Of the 20,778 Black and white adults who participated, 66 to 86% of Black adults attended low-quality schools versus 21 to 23% of white adults. 

The authors determined a state’s quality of education by examining its school term length, student-teacher ratio, and attendance rates. Based on the results, the state was categorized as low-, medium-, or high-quality.

“Our study adds to the evidence that older Black individuals were unequally burdened by lower state-level educational quality,” Yenee Soh, lead author and research fellow with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, said in a statement. “Educational investments at the state level matter for dementia risk.”

Though only 14% of the national population, Black people account for one-third of all Americans with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Each participant was born in the United States between 1902 and 1931 — a time period known as the Jim Crow era, when schools were legally segregated, and Black students lacked access to quality learning material. And in the century before, it was illegal for enslaved Black folks to learn to read or write. 

“This study underscores the importance of investing in education quality accessible by all for us to reach our goal of healthy brain aging for all,” Paola Gilsanz, a senior author and an investigator with the Division of Research, said in a statement. 

Inequity in education didn’t disappear with Brown v. Board. 

Black children are currently more likely to attend a high-poverty school, be suspended, and less likely to be college-ready. This translates to less time in the classroom and a higher risk for dementia.

“Differential investment in high-quality education due to structural racism may contribute to dementia disparities,” the authors wrote. 

This may be true for the 1.1 million Black Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease. Though only 14% of the national population, Black people account for one-third of all Americans with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

The authors say “cognitive reserve” may be the reason education and dementia are connected. When a person accesses a higher quality of education, it increases their brain’s ability to cope with aging and disease.

Higher educational quality may also lead to financial stability, which could provide more access to resources that protect health.

Get Word In Black directly in your inbox. Subscribe today.