If you have a traumatic brain injury (TBI) — or major damage done to your head or brain — you may be more likely to recover if you’re well-educated, new research says.
In a study published in Neurology, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine analyzed people with moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries and found that people who had more education had stronger recoveries than people who didn’t. Most of the TBIs were caused by motor vehicle accidents or falls. “After these types of injuries, some people are disabled for life and are never able to go back to work, while other people who have similar injuries recover fully,” Eric Schneider, an author of the study and a researcher at Johns Hopkins, said in a press release. “We understand some factors that lead to these differences, but we can’t explain all of the variation. These results may provide another piece of the puzzle.”
The study reviewed 769 people — over the age of 23 and grouped by their levels of education — who had experienced a traumatic brain injury. The researchers found that 39 percent of those who were in the college-educated group had recovered from their TBI; by the time one year was up, they had no disability and were ready to return to work or school. However, just 10 percent of people who had no high school diploma were ready to return to their daily lives after a full recovery in a year. “People with education equal to a college degree were more than seven times more likely to fully recover from their injury than people who did not finish high school,” Schneider said in the press release.
This has to do with something called cognitive reserve, or the brain’s ability to retain proper functioning even when it has been damaged. Researchers came up with the idea that people who are educated have a greater cognitive reserve than those who are not; educated people with Alzheimer’s are more likely to have fewer symptoms than uneducated people suffering from the same disorder. “Cognitive reserve explains why those with higher IQ, education, occupational attainment, or participation in leisure activities evidence less severe clinical or cognitive changes in the presence of age-related or Alzheimer’s disease pathology,” researchers Adrienne Tucker and Yaakov Sterin wrote in a report out of Columbia University. Older studies have also pointed to the link between education and Alzheimer’s.
“We need to learn more about how education helps to protect the brain and how it affects injury and resilience,” Schneider said. “Exploring these relationships will hopefully help us to identify ways to help people recover better from traumatic brain injury.”