Around 1.7 million Americans experience a traumatic brain injury every year, leading to over 1.3 million emergency department visits and 275,000 hospitalizations. Now, new research suggests that the more years of education a person has, the better they will recover from such an injury.
The research team, including Eric B. Schneider, PhD, of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, says past research has shown that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease who have more education tend to have fewer symptoms of the disease, compared with individuals who have less education – even when they have the same amount of damage to the brain.
Such findings have been attributed to the “cognitive reserve theory” – the hypothesis that people with more education have a larger cognitive reserve. In other words, their brain can function properly regardless of the damage it may have suffered.
But the Johns Hopkins team says that until now, this theory had not been tested in people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) – a blow or jolt to the head that can interfere with normal brain function.
For their study, the researchers assessed 769 people aged at least 23 years old who had experienced a TBI. Participants were divided into groups dependent on their education level and were followed for a minimum of 1 year after their injury.
Of the subjects, 185 (24%) did not finish high school, 390 (51%) had 12 to 15 years of education, or had completed high school and undertaken some post-secondary education, while 194 (25%) had 16 years or more of education, or had gained at least an undergraduate degree.
At the end of the follow-up period, 219 (28%) participants had no disability as a result of their TBI and were able to return to school or work.
But of those who had no high school diploma, only 23 (10%) were free of disability, compared with 136 (31%) participants with some college education and 76 (39%) of participants with a college degree.
Furthermore, subjects with education equal to a college degree were more than seven times more likely to fully recover from their TBI, compared with those who did not complete high school. Participants with some college education were almost five times more likely to fully recover than those who did not have enough education to gain a high school diploma.
Schneider says that after a TBI, many individuals are disabled for life and are never able to resume work, while others with the same injuries make a full recovery. He says these latest findings may lead to a better understanding of such differences in recovery.
“We need to learn more about how education helps to protect the brain and how it affects injury and resilience. Exploring these relationships will hopefully help us to identify ways to help people recover better from traumatic brain injury.”