1 Children who get good grades at the age of 10 are significantly less likely to develop dementia in later life.
Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden – who studied 7,500 dementia-free pensioners for at least 20 years and compared their mental health against their education and work experiences – claim that children who stretch themselves in class build up a “cognitive reserve” that makes them more resilient to memory loss in old age.
Children who scored in the top fifth at school and went into jobs that involved complex analysis had a 39% lower risk of developing dementia than the rest of the group.
In a matching study of 440 people over the age of 75 over nine years it was found that pupils with the lowest grades at school were 50% more likely to suffer dementia after the age of 75 even if they went on to study at university or had intellectually challenging jobs.
This is more evidence that low IQ scores in childhood is linked to a higher risk of dementia after a similar study in Scotland in 2008 that found that people with poor academic scores as children were at a significantly higher risk of developing vascular dementia.
It is also more evidence that challenging the brain throughout its lifetime gives you more mechanisms to deal with the symptoms of dementia. Although there are mixed views about so-called “brain training”, exercise and a healthy diet can definitely improve your brainpower as you get older.
Having a cognitive reserve doesn’t protect you from the physical damage of dementia but can help people finding ways of minimising the effects.
Dr Laura Phipps from Alzheimer Research said “With some people there’s something about their brain – the way it works, how many connections they have in the brain, how easily they form these connections – that means in the face of brain damage they can find compensatory strategies and carry on with life as normal”
A neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute said “Our findings highlight the importance of early-life cognitive performance for the late-life risk of dementia. It appears that baseline cognitive ability, even at age 10, may provide the foundation for successful cognitive ageing much later in life. Formation of cognitive reserve is a process that apparently begins early in life”
Dr Phipps was keen to stress that poor school results in childhood didn’t necessarily mean that a child was exposed to a greater risk of dementia or memory loss when they got older. More research was needed to look at other factors such as diet and genetics.
30 volunteers took part in an experiment at Newcastle University.
Two groups either took brisk walks or did crossword puzzles or Sudoku. The third group took an art class drawing a nude male.
All the volunteers took a series of tests over eight weeks. The walking group showed the biggest improvement in physical health and a small increase in the cognitive tests, those doing increasingly difficult crosswords and sudoku became better at them and improved their mental skills.
However the art class showed the greatest enthusiasm for the task and showed the biggest improvement in the memory tests.
The art class was also the most sociable which is also an important factor in keeping the brain sharp.
The clinical psychologist who organised the tests said learning a new skill could be a benefit in maintaining brain power. “Learning something new engages the brain in ways that seem to be the key. Your brain changes in response no matter how many years you have behind you. Capturing an image on paper is not just intellectually demanding, it also involves learning how to make the muscles in your hand guide the pencil or paintbrush in the right direction.”
An additional health benefit was that the volunteers stood in the art class for three hours a week which burns calories and improves health.
NB. Recently there has been a health campaign to get more office workers to stand up during the day to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes but there has been no real evidence that it has been effective.