The potential protective role of education for dementia is an area of major interest. Almost all older people have some pathology in their brain at death but have not necessarily died with dementia. We have explored these two observations in large population-based cohort studies (Epidemiological Clinicopathological Studies in Europe; EClipSE) in an investigation of the relationships of brain pathology at death, clinical dementia and time in education, testing the hypothesis that greater exposure to education reduces the risk of dementia. EClipSE has harmonized longitudinal clinical data and neuropathology from three longstanding population-based studies that included post-mortem brain donation. These three studies started between 1985 and 1991. Number of years of education during earlier life was recorded at baseline. Incident dementia was detected through follow-up interviews, complemented by retrospective informant interviews, death certificate data and linked health/social records (dependent on study) after death. Dementia-related neuropathologies were assessed in each study in a comparable manner based on the Consortium to Establish a Registry for Alzheimer's Disease protocol. Eight hundred and seventy-two brain donors were included, of whom 56% were demented at death. Longer years in education were associated with decreased dementia risk and greater brain weight but had no relationship to neurodegenerative or vascular pathologies. The associations between neuropathological variables and clinical dementia differed according to the 'dose' of education such that more education reduced dementia risk largely independently of severity of pathology. More education did not protect individuals from developing neurodegenerative and vascular neuropathology by the time they died but it did appear to mitigate the impact of pathology on the clinical expression of dementia before death. The findings suggest that an understanding of the mechanisms leading to functional protection in the presence of pathology may be of considerable value to society.