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Active social life may create cognitive buffer against Alzheimer's, study suggests

People with a social life consisting of such activities as volunteer work, clubs, sports or artistic pursuits may help protect their brain from cognitive decline, new research suggests. File Photo by Billie Jean Shaw/UPI
People with a social life consisting of such activities as volunteer work, clubs, sports or artistic pursuits may help protect their brain from cognitive decline, new research suggests. File Photo by Billie Jean Shaw/UPI

Aug. 3 (UPI) -- People's education, job and social life -- whether they participate in clubs, religious groups, sports or artistic pursuits or volunteer their time -- may help protect their brain from cognitive decline, new research suggests.

The study's findings, reported Wednesday in Neurology, the online journal of the American Academy of Neurology, spanned six decades of participants' lives.

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As the basis of the study, researchers from the United Kingdom explored the idea that genetic and "life course" factors may help create a so-called "cognitive reserve" that provides a buffer against Alzheimer's disease.

This may explain why some people with Alzheimer's-related amyloid plaques in their brains show no signs of the illness, while others with the same amount of plaque buildup encounter problems with memory and thinking, the scientists said.

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The research concludes that the association between cognitive abilities in childhood and older age is "moderated by an intellectually enriching lifestyle." And this indicates cognitive ability is subject to environmental influences throughout one's lifetime.

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Said differently, continuing to learn over a lifetime may help protect the brain, even for people who have lower scores on cognitive tests in childhood.

Previous research has shown people with low scores as children are more likely to have a steeper cognitive decline in old age than people with high scores, a news release noted.

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Dorina Cadar, the study's lead author, described the results as "exciting" in the release, "because they indicate that cognitive ability is subject to factors throughout our lifetime and taking part in an intellectually, socially and physically active lifestyle may help ward off cognitive decline and dementia."

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," added Cadar, senior lecturer in cognitive epidemiology and dementia at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in London, England.

The study included 1,184 people, born in 1946 in the United Kingdom, who took cognitive tests when they were 8 years old and again when they were 69 years old.

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The investigators created what they called a "cognitive reserve index" that combined people's education level at age 26, their participation in "enriching leisure activities" at age 43 and their job up to age 53.

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The study also tested participants' reading ability at age 53 as a measure of lifelong learning, separate from education and occupation.

Basically, the researchers found that higher cognitive skills in childhood, a higher cognitive reserve index and higher reading ability all were associated with higher scores on the cognitive test at age 69.

Under the study's scoring system, people with a bachelor's degree or other higher education scored more on average than those with no formal education.

People who enjoyed six or more leisure activities, "such as adult education classes, clubs, volunteer work, social activities and gardening," scored more on average than people who engaged in up to four leisure activities.

And individuals with a "professional or intermediate level job" scored more on average than those with partly skilled or unskilled jobs.

An editorial accompanying the study suggested long-term benefits might arise from investing in education, widening opportunities for leisure activities and providing cognitively challenging activities for people, especially those working in less skilled jobs.

The researchers conceded that people who remained in the study until age 69 may have been more likely to be healthier, and have better thinking skills and more social advantages than those dropping out, so results may not reflect the general population.

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Study sponsors included the U.K. Alzheimer's Society and National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging.

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