Academic learning lowers risk of dementia - study
Academic learning stretches the mental muscles.

University education, leadership roles and healthy lifestyle choices build a “cognitive reserve” that can keep us mentally fit later in life, a new research published in PLOS Medicine journal reveals.

Academic learning and leadership roles challenge our brains in early or mid-life, making our cognitive abilities grow sharper and more resilient against the deteriorating effects arising from age or sickness such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – a process scientists call “cognitive reserve”.

“People who engage in stimulating activities that stretch the brain, challenging it to use different strategies that exercise a variety of networks, have higher ‘cognitive reserve’,” says professor of clinical psychology of ageing and dementia at the University of Exeter, Linda Clare.

“This builds a buffer in the brain, making it more resilient.

It means signs of decline only become evident at a higher threshold of illness or decay than when this buffer is absent.” – Clare

The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, studied 2,315 people over 65 years old, who took part in the first waves of interview for the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Wales (CFAS-Wales).

In addition to those who regularly flexed their mental muscles, there is another group that also performed best in the tests – those who ate plenty of fruits and vegetables, were physically active and had moderate alcohol consumption.

“We found people with a healthier lifestyle had better scores on tests of mental ability, and this was partly accounted for by their level of cognitive reserve,” study leader Professor Bob Woods of Bangor University said.

As well as aiding the brain, these factors “also help in avoiding heart disease at younger age” according to Professor Fiona Matthews of Newcastle University, the principal statistician for the study.

According to Woods, the findings show there is an implication on policies that target senior citizens.

“Our results highlight the important of policies and measures that encourage older people to make changes in their diet, exercise more and engage in more socially oriented and mentally stimulating activities,” Woods said.

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