The study has been published in Neurology journal and is based on data gathered in the UK over 60 years. It shows for the first time that building mental resilience across a lifetime – a ‘cognitive reserve’ – through education, socialising, jobs and having several leisure activities, can reduce the risk of dementia, even among those with low childhood cognition or a genetic predisposition to the condition.
It was authored by Dr Dorina Cadar, a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Dementia Studies at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. The medical school is a joint venture between University of Brighton and University of Sussex, in partnership with local NHS.
Dr Cadar said: “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.”
She added: “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.”
The study involved 1,184 people who were born in 1946 in the UK. Participants took cognitive tests when they were eight years old and again when they were 69 years old. A cognitive reserve index combined people’s education level at age, participation in enriching leisure activities at age 43 and occupation up to age 53. Their reading ability at age 53 was also tested as a measure of overall lifelong learning separate from education and occupation.
The researchers found that higher childhood cognitive skills, a higher cognitive reserve index and higher reading ability in midlife were all associated with higher scores on the cognitive test at age 69. Having a bachelor’s degree or other higher education qualification, working in a professional or intermediate-level job, and engaging in six or more leisure activities such as adult education or volunteering were also associated with higher scores.
The study also found that when people had a higher cognitive reserve index and reading ability, their scores on cognitive tests did not decline as rapidly as people with lower scores, regardless of their test scores at age eight.
Katherine Gray, Research Communications Manager at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “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.
“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.”
The study was supported by the UK Alzheimer’s Society, UK Medical Research Council, US National Institute on Aging and UK Economic and Social Research Council.