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Jul 30, 2014 08:01 AM EDT

Early Life Experiences Affect Cognitive Decline Later In Life, Study

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Early life experiences like childhood socioeconomic status and literacy might influence the risk of heightened cognitive decline later in life, according to a study by the University of California Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center and the University of Victoria, Canada.

Researchers said that these factors have a larger impact than demographic characteristics like race and ethnicity.

"Declining cognitive function in older adults is a major personal and public health concern," said Bruce Reed, professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center, in a statement. "But not all people lose cognitive function, and understanding the remarkable variability in cognitive trajectories as people age is of critical importance for prevention, treatment and planning to promote successful cognitive aging and minimize problems associated with cognitive decline."

For the study, the researchers surveyed 300 diverse men and women who spoke either English or Spanish. All the participants - aged 60 or older - were Caucasian, African-American or Hispanic. Also, they did not suffer from any psychiatric or life threatening medical illnesses.

The researchers found that non-Latino Caucasians scored 20 to 25 percent higher on general knowledge tests and 13 to 15 percent higher on tests that involved executive functioning as compared to other ethnic groups. However, when researchers included factors like childhood socioeconomic status, adult literacy and physical activity into evaluations, these differences either disappeared or were reduced.

"This study is unusual in that it examines how many different life experiences affect cognitive decline in late life," said Dan Mungas, professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

The study titled "Life Experiences and Demographic Influences on Cognitive Function in Older Adults," is published in the journal Neuropsychology.

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