Background: The APOEɛ4 allele is a well-known risk factor for Alzheimer's disease (AD). Previous research argues that higher education helps to preserve cognition in older adults with AD pathology because of its key role in cognitive reserve and resilience.
Objective: To test if higher educational level buffers the effect of APOEɛ4 on cognition among older non-Hispanic Blacks.
Methods: Participants were 849 non-demented older non-Hispanic Blacks (38.3% APOEɛ4+), who underwent a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation. Multiple linear regression models tested the relationship between APOEɛ4 status and twelve cognitive measures with education (up to high school and beyond high school) as a moderator.
Results: Education buffered the effects of the APOEɛ4 allele, such that there was no impact of APOEɛ4 status on word-list memory retention and working memory among participants with more than a high school degree. This pattern was not observed for ten other cognitive measures of verbal and visual episodic memory, semantic memory, executive function, and processing speed-although a similar trend was observed for switching ability in executive functioning. The buffering effect of education was stronger among women than men.
Conclusion: Our findings suggest that genetic effects on late-life cognition may be modified by environmental factors such as educational attainment. These results are consistent with the framework of cognitive reserve such that engaging in cognitively enriching activities and acquiring skills and knowledge with more years of education may increase the capacity to maintain cognitive function despite high genetic risk for impairment.
Keywords: APOE; African American; Alzheimer’s disease; cognitive reserve; educational attainment; episodic memory; genetic risk; neuropsychological evaluation.