Decreasing risk of late-life cognitive decline may begin in youth

Much is known about the positive role enriching environments in middle and later life can play in maintaining healthy cognitive function. Researchers now believe similar enrichment activities during childhood also can slow cognitive decline.

The latest data is from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing clinical-pathological community-based cohort study of chronic conditions of aging. The study showed an association between higher levels of Early-Life Cognitive Enrichment (ELCE) and less cognitive decline among 813 participants with a mean age of 90.1 years at the time of their death. Of the participants, 562 (69 percent) were women.

The findings echo a 2019 report that focused on data from African Americans from the Brain and Health Substudy of the Baltimore Experience Corps Trial. Findings in that study showed that just as adverse childhood experiences can play a role in future development, a greater enriching early-life activity score was linked to favorable outcomes in educational attainment, processing speed and executive functioning. Researchers concluded their results offered promising evidence that Early-Life Cognitive Enrichment is associated with late-life educational and cognitive outcomes.

Specifically, the Rush MAP study pointed to the availability of cognitive resources at age 12. For the study group that included resources like a household newspaper subscription, set of encyclopedias, and a globe or atlas. The frequency of participating in cognitively stimulating activities was also taken into account, such as being read to at age 6 or having foreign language instruction before the age of 18. These factors were combined with information about the participant’s early-life socioeconomic status, including parents’ level of education, to create a measure of Early-Life Cognitive Enrichment.

“The findings suggest that cognitive health in old age depends in part on cognitive development in early life,” lead researcher Shahram Oveisgharan told reporters. “Intervention programs such as Head Start targeting disadvantaged youth can result not only in better school performance and better job opportunities, but also in healthier late-life cognition and cognitive resilience.”

Timothy Hohman of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and Catherine Kaczorowski of the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, found promise in the study.

“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,” the two wrote in an editorial that accompanied the research findings in the JAMA Neurology.

“With the development of well-defined and translated measures of cognitive reserve, resistance, and resilience, it may be possible to move toward new clinical trial designs that evaluate efficacy through enhancing protection rather than simply reducing disease,” they wrote.

Many theories have been developed to explain cognitive development, and each theory has had a fair share of challenges. One of the most well-known is Piaget’s Theory, which includes four cognitive development stages as well as various substages.

But there is no need to memorize a large table of developmental stages or abilities to provide a child opportunities for cognitive stimulation. Playing games, participating in sports, visiting a zoo or a museum or absorbing a book or story can all be used. As this research showed, providing household access to learning materials can make a difference.

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