Education plays a key role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and Liying Luo, assistant professor of sociology and demography and associate director of the Center for Social Data Analytics, has made it one of the primary focuses of her research. Now her work in that area is going to the next level, thanks to a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The recently awarded grant will fund “Heterogeneous Effects of Education on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias among Demographic Groups: A Multigenerational and Multilevel Study,” a five-year research study examining the role education plays in racial and ethnic disparities pertaining to cognitive impairment and dementias including Alzheimer’s.
The study's principal investigator, Luo is leading an interdisciplinary team that includes Penn State colleagues David Baker, professor of sociology, education and demography; Alyssa Gamaldo, associate professor of human development and family studies (HDFS); Melissa A. Hardy, distinguished professor of sociology and demography; Martin J. Sliwinski, Gregory H. Wolf Professor of Aging Studies, professor of HDFS and director of the Center for Healthy Aging; and graduate students Jiahui Xu, Cayley Ryan and Kira England.
“And we have some additional consultants from across the nation — I’m amazed by the level of support across the spectrum,” Luo said. “It’s been a very uplifting process, seeing how many people are interested in this research.”
Research has shown that the greater a person’s educational level, the lower the likelihood they’ll develop Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). That protective effect has been found to be smaller for racial/ethnic minority groups than for non-Hispanic white individuals, “so identifying the socio-demographic factors that modify or mediate the education-ADRD relationship presents a unique opportunity to address the racial/ethnic disparities in ADRD and ultimately improve population health,” Luo said.
The study aims to better identify the factors that lead to the protective effect of education against ADRD being lower among minority communities. Most current research relies solely on a person’s education to assess the education-ADRD relationship, rather than also considering the significance of other family members’ education or the social and environmental context in which the education occurs.
Through analyzing data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, Luo and her collaborators intend to develop a new approach that incorporates “multigenerational education and multidomain contextual measures” to clarify the diverse effects of education on ADRD risk among racial and ethnic groups.
Because racial and ethnic minorities have a lower likelihood of upward intergenerational mobility and a higher likelihood of downward mobility than non-Hispanic whites, research explaining the implications of multigenerational disadvantage for the education-ADRD relationship will provide new insight into understanding why the effects of education on ADRD vary among demographic groups. In addition, because racial/ethnic minority students often attend schools with fewer resources than white students, estimating the effects of contextual factors is crucial to improving the understanding of the education-ADRD relationship and associated racial and ethnic disparities.
“It’s interesting and novel research, and a subject that needs more attention,” Luo said. “My goal is to understand the health implications of education. We see education as a means of getting a good job, but education is also good for your health -- not just your own health, but your parents’ health and your children’s health, too. Across socio-economic demographic groups, educational levels, mobility patterns, and contexts vary greatly. I want to know the role of those education-related patterns and contexts for those health outcomes in later life. If we’re able to determine the gaps, we can make improvements within those disadvantaged groups and ultimately for the entire population.”
Luo’s interest in the subject was sparked by her father’s battle with dementia and other age-related neurodegenerative disorders. The first college graduate in her family, Luo has seen the struggle firsthand, but also how her education has been beneficial to helping her parents.
“Other studies often only consider a person’s own educational attainment, while ignoring family-level resources and contextual factors, such as the education of other family members and the social environment they live in. We need to pay attention to those other factors,” Luo said. “Many families are affected by dementia and every family member can contribute to better prevention and caring. It’s critical for us to understand the process in order to design interventions and limit the disparities.”
Luo and her colleagues will spend the first two years of the study gathering contextual-level data, collecting and analyzing census information that zeroes in on zip codes throughout the country and accounts for factors like employment rates, income levels and college attendance rates.
“We want to get as rich data as possible,” Luo said. “There’s the thought that greater education is linked to lower risk of disease, but that’s too limiting. We don’t know what type of school someone went to, or the type of degree they attained. We want to dig deeper into what education conveys and more particularly about what students get from their education, and the social and economic contexts in which their education occurs. And we need to know the education level of their family members, including their parents, partners and children. We’ll also be analyzing the different birth cohorts. For example, baby boomers have very different education experiences than millennials.”
The study also includes collaborators from the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas. Once the new dataset is in place, the research team plans to complete five separate papers that will be submitted to top-tier journals and presented at conferences.
“Through my father’s experience, I know how much people care for their family members, and how they’re always looking for new medicines and ways of treatment,” Luo said. “So, I see the impact this can have, not just the research aspect, but for society as a whole.”