Education may help eliminate the risk of cognitive decline associated with the APOE e4 gene in non-Hispanic Black people, according to a new study.

The APOE e4 gene is the most significant genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease in all segments of the population — but previous studies have focused non-Hispanic white people, according to the authors at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. This is the first study to focus on non-Hispanic blacks, a segment of the population that presents higher rates of APOE e4 and dementia than non-Hispanic whites.

Past research has linked higher education to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, even in individuals who are carriers of the APOE e4 gene.

“There’s frustratingly little we can do to lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, but education appears to be one of the few interventions that we know works,” Jet M.J. Vonk, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research scientist in the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and first author, said in a statement.

Researchers examined 849 non-Hispanic Blacks, none of whom had dementia, though about 38 per cent carried the APOE e4 gene. 

The average age of the participants was 69 years old.

“Overall, among individuals with more than a high school degree, APOE e4 carriers performed just as well on two key memory tests as non-carriers, an effect that was particularly pronounced in women,” the study’s authors say, suggesting that education can act to “buffer” the effects of APOE e4 on episodic memory retention and working memory, the first two types of recall to normally impact Alzheimer’s patients.

 “The important point is that education is a modifiable risk factor for cognitive decline. It’s something that we can target with public policies that increase access to higher education,” Vonk says.

 “We also hope to examine which other social and environmental factors later in life, from your 20s through your 60s, may help buffer cognitive decline associated with the APOE e4 gene in this population.”

The study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Odds of developing Alzheimer’s

Late-onest Alzheimer’s is the most common form of the disease and typically begins after age 65, according to The Mayo Clinic.

Approximately  25 per cent of the general population carries one copy of the APOE e4 gene and about 2 to 3 per cent of the global population has two copies.

Studies suggest up to 60 per cent of the latter segment will develop Alzheimer’s dementia by age 85, compared with 10 to 15 percent of the general population.

Other genetic and environmental factors can also contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.