Older women could be at greater risk of dementia due to their lack of access to education, a new study suggests.
Inequalities in access to education in the early 20th century in the UK may have been partially responsible for increasing the risk, researchers said.
Experts at University College said that as education access improved over the century, the differences in cognitive ageing between men and women reduced.
They added the findings, published in the journal Lancet Public Health, shine a light on “the importance of equitable access to education” when it comes to public health.
Previous studies have found that lower education was associated with a greater risk for dementia.
In this latest research, the scientists used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) – which follows the lives of people in England aged 50 and over – and the Whitehall II study – a longitudinal study of British civil servants.
The team assessed the impact of education on “memory” and “fluency” of nearly 16,000 participants born between 1930 and 1955.
Poor performance on either of these tests is strongly associated with dementia risk.
The test subjects were asked to memorise a list of words and then recall as many as possible within two minutes as part of the memory test.
Fluency was assessed by asking participants to list as many animals as possible within one minute.
Women were found to have poorer fluency scores than men in the older birth cohort.
The researchers said this difference “progressively reversed in more recent birth cohorts, with women born between 1946 and 1955 having better scores than their male counterparts”.
They believe the changes could be partially explained by an increase in education level in women born later.
Mikaela Bloomberg, a PhD candidate at the University College London’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, and lead author on the study, said: “Our findings suggest that among people educated in the first half of the 20th century, gender inequalities in access to education led to lower education levels among women and this likely negatively impacted cognitive ageing, and therefore increased the risk of dementia for women.
“Our study suggests this might change in the future, as disparities in access to education decrease, highlighting the importance of equitable access to education for health, particularly in countries where access to education for women and girls is still limited.”