It may be possible to avoid dementia after all, even for those more pre-disposed to the condition, according to results from a 60-year study. The study, published in Neurology, shows that building a cognitive reserve during a lifetime can reduce the risk of dementia even among those with a genetic predisposition for the condition. The authors suggest this mental resilience can be achieved through education, social interactions, and engaging in leisure activities.
“These results are exciting because they indicate that cognitive ability is influenced by various factors throughout our lifetime, and taking part in an intellectually, socially, and physically active lifestyle may help ward off cognitive decline and dementia,” said study author Dorina Cadar, Ph.D., Brighton, and Sussex Medical School. “It’s heartening to find that building up one’s cognitive reserve may offset the negative influence of low childhood cognition for people who might not have benefited from an enriching childhood and offer stronger mental resilience until later in life. Considering that we struggle to successfully treat dementia, this study is promising that we could and should build our mental resilience throughout our entire life before it’s too late.”
Almost 1200 participants born in 1946 in the UK were involved in the study. They took cognitive tests when they were eight years old and again when they reached 69 years old. A “cognitive reserve index” was calculated for each person based on education level, participation in leisure activities, and occupation. Reading skills were also tested to assess learning ability separate from education and occupation.
Higher cognitive skills as a child, a higher cognitive reserve index, and a higher reading ability were associated with higher scores on the cognitive test at age 69. For example, people with a bachelor’s degree or higher education qualifications scored 1.2 points higher than those with no formal education. Likewise, people who engaged in multiple leisure activities as an adult scored 1.5 points more than people who did not engage in leisure activities. Finally, those with a professional job scored more than 1.5 points than those with unskilled occupations. Curiously, people with a higher cognitive reserve index didn’t experience a drop in their cognitive skills as rapidly as participants with lower results, regardless of their scores at eight years old.
“This long-term Alzheimer’s Society funded study adds to a popular theory that the more you regularly challenge your brain, the less likely you are to experience memory and thinking problems in your later years,” said Katherine Gray, Research Communications Manager at Alzheimer’s Society. “From childhood to adulthood, participants who kept their brain active, whether it’s in education, their career, or by taking part in complex hobbies, had better thinking abilities by the age of 69. It’s estimated that the number of people with dementia in the UK is set to rise to 1.6 million by 2040. While there are many risk factors related to developing dementia, it is hopeful to know that engaging in mentally stimulating activities and finding ways to regularly challenge your brain can help reduce the development of memory and thinking problems in the future.”
Almeida-Meze P, Richards M, Cadar D (2022) Moderating Role of Cognitive Reserve Markers Between Childhood Cognition and Cognitive Ageing: Evidence From the 1946 UK Birth Cohort. Neurology, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000200928