Mental activity linked to slower cognitive decline

ARUK scientists link education, occupation and social engagement to better brain health later in life.

Posted on 13th December 2012

Research from scientists at the University of Cambridge has revealed that a better education, a more complex job in mid-life and greater social engagement later in life are all linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline in a group of over 65s. The research suggests that interventions aimed at keeping the brain busy could help slow the progression towards dementia. The study, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, is published on 12 December in the journal PLOS ONE.

The scientists followed 13,004 people who were recruited into the Medical Research Council Cognitive Function and Ageing Study. The participants, who were all over the age of 65, were asked about their education, mid-life occupation, and social activities in later life, such as attending meetings, taking evening classes and visiting relatives and neighbours. They also took part in memory and thinking tests at different times over a 16 year period.

The team found that those who were more mentally active had a reduced risk of developing memory problems in older age. Greater education and a more complex mid-life occupation were associated with a lower risk of moving from no impairment to mild impairment, whereas late-life social engagement was associated with a lower risk of moving from mild to moderate memory and thinking problems.

All three lifestyle factors were linked to an increased likelihood of recovery from a state of slight mental impairment back to normal functioning. The researchers also found that those who were more mentally active were also more likely to spend a shorter period of time with severe impairment or dementia before dying.

This research is the latest in a suite of papers from the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study that have examined engagement in mentally demanding activities across the lifespan and their association with risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

The study was led by Dr Riccardo Marioni, an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow. He said:

“We have shown previously that keeping the brain active is linked to a reduced risk of developing dementia, but these findings show it is also linked to a slower rate of cognitive decline. We also show that mental activity could help reverse the initial stages of cognitive decline. It is still unclear exactly how an active lifestyle could be protecting the brain as we age. One theory is that mental activity strengthens or reroutes nerve cell connections, making our brain more resilient to damage.

“By following such a large group of people over time, we are building a really interesting picture of the factors that can influence our brain health as we age. With dementia affecting more than 820,000 people in the UK, it is vital for us to understand more about how we can reduce our risk.”

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:

“Alzheimer’s Research UK is excited to support valuable research like this, which adds further to the ‘use it or lose it’ debate. There is increasing evidence that keeping the brain active could protect against cognitive decline, but it is likely to be just one of a huge number of complex factors that play a role in our dementia risk. Studies following large groups over time can reveal important insights into what lifestyle or environmental factors have a bearing on brain health.

“Research into risk factors for cognitive decline can have implications for how we live our life, and can influence interventions aimed at helping those in the early stages. With research into dementia so underfunded compared to other common diseases, it is vital that support for funding is maintained so that we can find the answers.”

Professor Hugh Perry, Chair of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Board at the Medical Research Council said:

“This paper recognises that there are certain patterns of behaviour, such as maintaining social networks and undertaking mental tasks, which can help stem the aggressive tide of dementia in later life. The Cognitive Function and Ageing Study is part of an important portfolio of work to help researchers identify factors that when modified will have the potential to slow down the rate at which the disease progresses.”

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