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Study explores connection between book smarts and brain injuries

Previous scientific studies have made the remarkable determination that those people with higher levels of mental activity can actually fare better in the fight against otherwise devastating medical conditions.

Specifically, researchers have found that Alzheimer's patients who have built up higher levels of so-called cognitive reserve, meaning a level of mental engagement garnered from everything from the pursuit of an education and the regular reading of books to crossword puzzles and Sudoku puzzles, can help stave off the onset of memory loss and dementia.

Similar results have been observed in patients diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and HIV encephalopathy.

Interestingly, a group of researchers from Tulane University, Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University recently set out to determine whether this same principle applies to those who have suffered a brain injury

The researchers followed the progress of 769 people who were hospitalized for moderate to severe brain trauma for one year to determine which ones ended up symptom-free. Here, they decided to use educational achievement as the sole measurement of cognitive reserve.

The results, published in the latest edition of the medical journal Neurology, found that only 214 of the patients -- 27.6 percent -- fully recovery from their head trauma.

Breaking the numbers down, it also found that among patients with 16-plus years of formal education (i.e., a college or graduate degree), 39.2 percent were symptom-free and fully functional after one year. Among those patients who completed 12 to 15 years of formal education, 30.8 percent were symptom-free and fully functional after one year, while among those patients who completed less than 12 years of formal education, only 9.7 percent were symptom-free and fully functional after one year.  

The researchers also noted that even within these wide educational categories, the likelihood of being symptom-free and fully functional after one year increased with each year of formal education completed.

It remains somewhat unclear as to why educational achievement should prove so valuable in helping recover from a brain injury. One theory is that the pursuit of education trains the brain to be more flexible, such that it can invent new strategies to counteract issues brought on by a sudden mental impairment.

As the results of this study make clear, not everyone who suffers a traumatic brain injury makes a full recovery -- regardless of their level of education. If you or a loved one suffered a head injury because of the negligence of another, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional dedicated to helping you every step of the way.

Source: The Los Angeles Times, "In recovering from brain trauma, it helps to have stayed in school," Melissa Healy, April 24, 2014

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