Compared to elderly adults in the 1990s, people older than 70 today may have a lower chance for serious memory problems, including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to a new study that examined mental function among more than 14,000 people over a decade. While the reasons for the apparent decline aren’t known, the brain boost may be explained by the fact that older Americans today are better educated, wealthier and have improved cardiovascular health compared to similarly-aged adults in the 1990s.
The study recommends that it’s important to keep your mind active, not just in formal education in early life, but with reading and talking with friends and staying connected with the world through volunteering and social networks,’’ said lead author Dr. Kenneth Langa, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan. We think that’s part of the story of keeping your brain healthy and working against cognitive decline and dementia.’’
The study, published online yesterday in the medical journal Alzheimer’s Dementia, examined mental function data from 7,406 people over age 69 in 1993 and compared the findings to a similar group of 7,104 adults in 2002. The prevalence of cognitive impairment dropped over the decade, falling to 8.7 percent, down from 12.2 percent in the 1990s.
That seemingly small decrease translates into hundreds of thousands of fewer people in their 70s with extreme cognitive issues than would have been expected based on the trends in 1993. Though the data suggest that overall risk for dementia may be dropping among aging Americans, the total number of people with cognitive decline continues to rise due to a swath of baby boomers entering old age.
Scientists can only assume why lower amount of people in 2002 showed signs of cognitive decline compared to people in the 1990s. The study found that, on average, the 2002 group had about one more year of formal education than those in 1993 and about $100,000 more in net worth. Having more money might translates into better health care, which may ultimately benefit the brain. The fact that the 2002 group had more education supports the notion of a cognitive reserve the idea that brain-stimulating activities in life build up a cushion of protection that can slow mental decline.
The researchers say more research is needed to confirm the findings. But, the information from this research and others underscore the importance that decreasing cardiovascular risk factors, such as controlling high blood pressure and stopping smoking, have on mental health. And no matter what decade of life you are in, the brain appears to benefit from continued mental challenges.
Early life is important in shaping the brain and instilling your cognitive reserve, but it does look like you can do things into your 50s and 60s that likely keep the reserve there that may keep you from declining,’’ Dr. Langa said.
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