How schools can contribute to Alzheimer's disease

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Education vs. Alzheimer's

A number of studies have shown that education prevents Alzheimer's. Learning constitutes a vital part of the brain hygiene. However, schooling, education and learning are all different things. Brain can also be abused. Stress, sleep deprivation, alcohol, and drugs are best known factors of brain abuse. Not everyone knows that learning can also be a tool of brain abuse.

In early childhood, brain abuse may, paradoxically, accelerate outwardly observed progress. In adolescence, brain abuse will lead to learned helplessness, depression, addictions, and other mental disorders. Cumulative brain abuse over the course of a lifetime will result in Alzheimer's disease. Its primary cause is excitotoxicity and neuroinflammation resulting from inadequate processing power vis-a-vis the cognitive load.

To say that learning prevents Alzheimer's is a bit like saying cold causes colds. The common denominator is that both cold and learning are great preventive measures when employed correctly. On the other hand, they can both backfire. In an extreme case, you can freeze a man to death. Otherwise, cold is far safer in cold prevention than learning is in preventing Alzheimer's. The two main areas where learning is frequently injurious are (1) the school system, and (2) the modern lifestyle involving stress, sleep deprivation, multitasking, and cognitive overload.

Learning is the acme of the evolutionary achievement in the area of neural computing. When powered by the learn drive and guided by the pleasure of cognition, learning is safe and it is a great neurotrophic and neuroprotective tool. However, the school system perverted learning in that it employs coercive measures that turn learning, literally, into a brain damaging activity. Even worse, in the quest for more and better test results, schools go deeper and deeper into that dark quagmire. The end is near. Short-term damage inflicted by schools is not obvious, and is most apparent in various aspects of mental health, incl. depression. However, after many years of abuse, Alzheimer's is the ultimate and pretty obvious outcome of bad learning and bad cognitive habits. Those habits begin at school. For a highly educated patient, pathology may show up later, but its impact may be more pronounced and lead to higher mortality.

How schools pervert learning

The school system perverts learning due to the following factors:

In addition to cognitive aspects of schooling there are also negative influences in the area of overall health. Obesity or diabetes are risk factors in Alzheimer's and are well fostered by oppressive rules of schooling. Even PE classes that are to promote exercise will often have the opposite effect in discouraging exercise through their coercive nature, often executed in wrong circadian frame or in conditions of sleep deprivation. In the end, to get my point, all you need is just one peek at those sad faces of kids rolling slowly to school, and contrast them with those long-lived blue zone centenarians of Sardinia or happy nonagenarian nuns in a sunny convent garden.

The educational formula for preventing Alzheimer's is very simple: Good learning prevents Alzheimer's, bad learning contributes to Alzheimer's. In terms of Alzheimer's disease, learning can be a good guy or a villain depending on the respect for the Fundamental law of learning. As for the absence of learning, its main contribution to Alzheimer's is that lower knowledge leads to higher processing burden in all cognitive tasks.

I do not recommend Elon Musk's formula for creativity: "you need to think until your brain hurts". I have no doubts about Elon's creative genius, however, his phrasing is just unfortunate. He probably meant, "you need to think about your problem from morning till evening", to which I would add "and in sleep too". However, mental hygiene is as vital for a creative breakthrough as it is for brain health. These days, for genetic reasons, even Bill Gates worries he might be at risk of Alzheimer's. Bill is an avid reader, and good reading is a great preventive measure. However, Bill also used to be a crazy workaholic with a combative streak and a degree of sleep abuse, as well as insufficient respect for physical exercise. Neither Elon nor Bill should be used as best models for a healthy use of the brain, even if they managed to drive their brains to genius level performance.

If you take correlations between the years of education and the incidence of Alzheimer's, the reality may easily hide amongst the data. For starters, cognitive capacity correlates both with one's academic performance and prospects for fending off Alzheimer's. Illiteracy leads to faster diagnosis. Finally, even the worst school will have some contribution to learning and overall knowledge. A tiny bit of good learning in a mass of bad learning may still bring a positive net outcome. Despite all my dramatic depictions, the data may still make us reassured that schooling is good and no change is necessary. In the meantime, we are squandering an immense global asset: youth and its unmeasurable creative potential.

Memory overload in Alzheimer's

In 2000, Robin P. Clarke wrote in Medical Hypotheses that network overload in learning can lead to Alzheimer's. I criticized the hypothesis for it ignored the value of good learning, which might be one of the best preventive factors. However, more and more evidence shows how an incomplete theory can make a major contribution to science. Clarke is little more wrong about Alzheimer's than Newton is wrong about the laws of motion.

New computational models seem to confirm what we always thought was the case: the damage in Alzheimer's progresses from areas that are most burdened in heavy cognitive tasks that rely strongly on working memory. No peer review journal would accept a thesis that schooling may be a cause of Alzheimer's. The chain of causality is a bit too long. However, the chain is also pretty obvious. For that you need to keep in mind:

Bad learning habits fostered by schooling, underlie cognitive maladaptations in adult life, and might be the chief behavioral cause of Alzheimer's

In his writings, Clarke mentioned TV viewing as leading to memory overload. In that sense, sheer information load cannot be a hallmark of cognitive overload. For example, all-night cramming for a test is far more injurious. There is hardly any excess cognitive burden caused by watching TV. This is a self-regulating passive activity. In a tired state, we naturally narrow the channel and perceive less in a less creative manner with lesser degree of deep processing. We can easily watch TV in a semi-asleep state, register a mere 1-5% of the standard volume of information, and still comfortably fall into a nap in a warm armchair. No burden, no stress, no damage. It is the demands of schooling that provide no cognitive safety valve. Sleep deprivation, deadlines, and cognitive overload are the chief components of excitotoxic abuse.

There is a similar story with the modern lifestyle where knowledge plays more and more role at work, and may be obtained in conditions that are even worse than those in an average public school. We learn in a hurry, in stress, in overload, while multitasking and while being sleep deprived. Those factors are highly destructive and only a good happy evening followed by a full night of sleep can prevent chronic build up of injury.

I keep hailing incremental reading as the best way to read and the best way to learn. However, beginners should be aware of the steep learning curve, and a degree of chaos that incremental reading may introduce to learning for an inexperienced adept. As in all other forms of learning, it is good to start slowly, methodically, and in a happy state of mind.

Knowledge is good on average, but learning requires a bit of deliberation to make it good too.

Healthy brain regimen should include: free running sleep, respect for the circadian cycle, pleasurable learning, and exercise.

Sturdy brain is the best insurance against senile dementia

Summary: Schools and Alzheimer's

  • the root neuronal cause of Alzheimer's is excitotoxicity, which comes from excessive cognitive loads on networks with insufficient processing power
  • good learning is preventive, while bad learning may contribute to Alzheimer's
  • the best reassurance for the positive impact of learning on prevention of Alzheimer's is the adherence to the Fundamental law of learning
  • schooling inherently violates the Fundamental law of learning through its coercive nature
  • for many kids, schooling leads to neural injury, which may be instantly apparent, e.g. in developing depression
  • despite all calls for reforms, mainstream schooling in the western world still keeps evolving in the wrong direction: more haste, more stress, greater loads, less coherence, and more neural injury
  • main factors of schooling that lead to excitotoxic injury are: overload, low coherence, high interference, low retention, low stability, sleep deprivation, circadian violations, stress, and toxic memories
  • bad learning and bad habits taken from school may end up in Alzheimer's pathology later in life