Declining brain health can be reversed, study shows

Want to stave off dementia? Then hit the books and work on your language skills. New research published by the American Academy of Neurology provides strong evidence that those with higher levels of education and stronger language skills have a greater chance of recovering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Widely considered to be a precursor to dementia (although new evidence casts doubts on this view), MCI is a slight decline in mental function that does not limit most everyday activities. Research now indicates that those with higher levels of education have a much better chance of fully recovering from MCI.

The lead author of the new study, Suzanne Tyas, Ph.D., professor in the school of public health sciences at the University of Waterloo, says such levels of education more than doubles the recovery rate.

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“Even after considering age and genetics – established risk factors for dementia – we found that higher levels of education more than doubled the chances that people with mild cognitive impairment would return to normal cognition instead of progressing to dementia,” she said.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the study was that it focused entirely on nuns. The research studied ageing and cognition among members of a religious congregation (the School Sisters of Notre Dame) living in the US. The participants had similar adult lifestyles, including socioeconomic status, social support, marital and reproductive histories, alcohol and tobacco use, and access to health services.

A total of 678 sisters, who were aged 75 or older at baseline (1991-93), agreed to participate in the study. The advantage of incorporating this group alone into the study was that it eliminated much of the ‘noise’ that can interfere with such research.

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With other potential contributing factors eliminated, the authors were able to identify education level as a key contributor to recovery.

As well as academic performance, written language skills were also shown to play a role. These measures of skills (incorporating “idea density and grammatical complexity”) were based on handwritten autobiographies from the convent archives.

The study’s observations revealed that reverse transitions – that is, going from MCI back to typical cognition – can occur more often in younger people with high academic achievement and language skills and who did not carry genetic risk factors for dementia.

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Factors such as language skills and higher education levels contribute to what another researcher calls “cognitive reserve”. In a podcast, Dr Yaakov Stern, Ph.D., Florence Irving professor of neuropsychology in the departments of neurology, psychiatry and psychology at Columbia University in New York, says cognitive reserve aids recovery from changes to brain condition.

“The concept of cognitive reserve is focused on: given the amount of brain changes that people have – either age-related or disease-related – some people do better than others,” he says. “Some people can cope with those brain changes better than others. Cognitive reserve is a process that allows people to cope better with brain change.”

So, if you have an opportunity to return to school and brush up on your written language skills, you should probably take it. It might just save you from dementia.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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