Building up a cognitive reserve could protect against poor memory and thinking, even in children with low cognition values

New research suggests that people who develop high ‘cognitive reserve’ by age 69 may be less likely to experience memory and thinking loss, even with low childhood cognitive skills. The study was published today in neurologythe medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Deterioration in memory and the ability to think is common in people with dementia, which is caused by physical disorders in the brain that damage nerve cells and the connections between them. Some people seem to be more resilient to this damage than others. This resilience is known as cognitive reserve, and research suggests that education, mental stimulation, and healthy living could help strengthen it.

What did the researchers do?

Researchers from Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the UK measured the cognitive abilities of 1,184 Britons born in the same week in March 1946.

The participants were part of the 1946 birth cohort, the oldest British birth cohort in which people were monitored throughout their lives. This is the same cohort behind the Insight 46 study funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK. These participants have been involved in health research their entire lives, helping researchers link several factors of early and middle life to brain health later in life.

The team had access to the participants’ childhood cognitive test scores, as well as their educational and occupational histories. They also knew the lifestyle habits, hobbies and leisure activities of the participants.

Participants received a higher score on the “cognitive reserve index” if they had a higher education at age 26, were engaged in healthy leisure activities at age 46, and had high-skilled jobs by age 53.

What did you find?

Higher cognitive reserve index scores, stronger reading skills at age 53, and better childhood cognition were all associated with better cognitive test scores when participants were 69 years old. Researchers measured people’s memory and thinking skills using tests that indicate whether someone has diseases like Alzheimer’s that cause dementia.

However, in people with the highest cognitive reserve scores and better reading skills, childhood cognition scores had no significant impact on memory and thinking ability at age 69. This suggests higher educational attainment, higher skilled jobs, and greater involvement in social and recreational activities may mitigate the effects of poor childhood cognition.

There is conflicting evidence on how much cognition in childhood affects brain health later in life. This study suggests that despite having lower cognitive test scores early in life, people could reduce their risk of cognitive decline later in life through skilled occupations, higher levels of education, and healthy leisure activities.

dr Sara Imarisio, Head of Strategic Initiatives at Alzheimer’s Research UK said:

“While our childhood can affect our memory and thinking skills later in life, this research reinforces the message that it is never too late to take action to support cognitive health.

“The study followed participants up to age 69 when they rated their cognition. Several factors, including education, social life, recreational activities, and literacy, appeared to improve cognition later in life, even in people with lower childhood cognitive test scores. The researchers assessed the participants’ memory and thinking skills, but didn’t look for biological signatures of diseases like Alzheimer’s, which can go undetected for years before cognitive symptoms appear. It will be important to continue to monitor these people to see if – and how – their brain health changes in the years to come.

“While mental stimulation and healthy living can reduce our risk of cognitive decline, there is no surefire way to prevent it. A mix of factors affects our brain health – some of which we can control, e.g. For example, taking care of our heart health, trying new activities, and staying in touch with friends and family. Factors like our genes are beyond our control, so it’s important to also consider the influence of risk genes for the diseases that cause dementia, as the researchers in this study did.

“The best current evidence suggests that not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, mental, physical and social activity, a balanced diet, and controlling cholesterol and blood pressure levels can help keep our brains healthy as we age. For brain health information and advice go to www.thinkbrainhealth.org.uk.”

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