Brain activity staves off dementia
Good physical, cognitive and psychological health all contribute to preventing dementia, a new study has shown...
As life expectancy rises and the world’s population ages, more people will begin to be affected by age-related diseases such as dementia.
In fact, an estimated 25% of people over the age of 85 are at risk of developing a form of dementia, or cognitive decline for which there is no cure. Scientists are still trying to understand more about the causes and predictors of the condition.
One such predictive factor may be education. “There have been a lot of observational studies showing that people who have higher levels of education are less likely to get dementia,” says Deirdre Robertson, a research fellow at the School of Psychology from Trinity College Dublin.
Why this happens isn't understood, but there are some theories, including the “cognitive reserve theory”. This states that education builds up cognitive capacity in the brain. So if the brain does suffer damage, the person is less likely to show signs of cognitive decline.
Another theory argues that learning new things and challenging the brain releases more of the nerve transmitter chemical noradrenaline. Animal studies, and work done on humans after death, shows that noradrenaline can have a neuroprotective effect, suggesting that learning new things can have a preventative effect on dementia.
So does this mean that, by challenging ourselves to keep learning new skills and keeping our brains active, we can prevent dementia?
“We’re still at that area when new studies are coming out all the time. We need higher quality studies to come out before we can say for sure what is happening,” Robertson explains.
Studies like this are challenging to do because they require long term engagement with the participants to get meaningful results. The Irish longitudinal study on ageing has been following over 8000 people over the age of 50, every two years and gathering large amounts of data on their health, housing, social support, work, retirement, pensions and quality of life.
Robertson is interested in how society’s stereotypes of ageing can impact people’s experience of ageing and how this can lead to, or prevent dementia.
“People who had more negative perceptions of themselves, and of ageing, had worse cognitive functions than their peers who had more positive perceptions over two years.”
This may be because people who are more negative about their ageing process may be less motivated to be cognitively engaged and try to push themselves to try new things, leading to cognitive decline.
According to Robertson, “we also need to consider the psychological health and how this may play into both physical health and cognitive health, both directly, or through areas like your willingness to improve and to challenge yourself.”