A new study has found that people who engaged in learning activities as children — studying foreign languages, being read to, looking at atlases, books and other learning materials, playing games that stimulate the mind — are more likely to have slower rates of cognitive decline later in life.
According to a study published Monday in JAMA Neurology, early-life cognitive enrichment was associated lower rates of not only cognitive decline, but of Alzheimer’s disease (though not with lower rates of other types of dementias), indicating that lifestyle factors in childhood could offer some protection against Alzheimer’s, one of the leading causes of death in America, and a disease that effects one in ten Americans over the age of 65.
Study co-author Shahram Oveisgharan of Rush University in Chicago told MedPage Today that the findings indicate that cognitive health in old age depends in part on cognitive development in early life. “Intervention programs such as Head Start targeting disadvantaged youths can result not only in better school performance and better job opportunities,” he said, “but also in healthier late-life cognition and cognitive resilience.”
Oveisgharan’s study joins a growing history of previous research on the link between reduced rates of Alzheimer’s and education at any age. One theory is that education helps stave off Alzheimer’s because the more a person learns, the more of a “cognitive reserve” they may have as a buffer against the early effects of the disease on the brain. This reserve of information and skills could theoretically help a person compensate for age-related cognitive impairment by better enabling them to systems that rely on other parts of the brain.
In the recent JAMA study, Oveisgharan and colleagues drew their findings from the autopsied brains of 813 study participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project. In life, participants took part in clinical evaluations and annual cognitive testing over the course of an average of seven years while they, and upon death they donated their brains to be autopsied. The mean age at time of death was 90; 69% were women and the majority were white.
The patients self-reported their early-life socioeconomic status, the cognitive resources available to them at age 12, the frequency of cognitively stimulating activities, and whether they had early-life foreign language instruction.
After controlling for age at death, sex, and educational level, a higher level of early-life cognitive enrichment was tied to a lower global Alzheimer’s disease pathology score.
According to Timothy Hohman, PhD, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and Catherine Kaczorowski, PhD, of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, the effects documented in the recent study were independent of late-life socioeconomic status and other complicating factors. In an editorial published concurrently with the study, Hohman and Kaczorowski wrote, “There may be a critical early-life period when cognitive enrichment has direct effects on future Alzheimer’s disease neuropathology, in addition to the well-characterized cognitive benefits associated with a variety of similar measures of cognitive reserve.”
They added: “These findings carry important public health implications, suggesting that late-life cognitive decline can be modified through thoughtful and intentional changes to public policy addressing early-life enrichment, defined herein by socioeconomic status in early life, availability of cognitive resources at 12 years of age, participation in cognitively stimulating activities at 6 years of age, and to a lesser extent, early-life foreign language instruction.”
While researchers are not sure why early-life enrichment defrays Alzheimer’s, Hohman and Kaczorowski add that research strengthens the importance of early-life experience in determining susceptibility, while highlighting the need for future studies.