Early Life Experiences Influence
Cognitive Ability in Senior Citizens
research pointing to importance of demographic characteristics such as
race and ethnicity
29, 2014 - An association between an increased risk of late-life
cognitive impairment and dementia and the person’s race and ethnicity,
is challenged by new research with senior citizens that finds early life
experiences, such as childhood socioeconomic status and literacy, may
have greater influence on the risk of cognitive impairment late in life.
The large study by
researchers with the
UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the University of Victoria, Canada challenges earlier research
that suggests such demographic characteristics as race and ethnicity,
particularly among Latinos, may be the key to cognitive problems in
function in older adults is a major personal and public health concern,”
Bruce Reed professor of neurology
and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
“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.”
The study, “Life
Experiences and Demographic Influences on Cognitive Function in Older
Adults,” is published online in
Neuropsychology, a journal
American Psychological Association.
It is one of the first comprehensive examinations of the multiple
influences of varied demographic factors early in life and their
relationship to cognitive aging.
The research was
conducted in a group of over 300 diverse men and women who spoke either
English or Spanish. They were recruited from senior citizen social,
recreational and residential centers, as well as churches and
health-care settings. At the time of recruitment, all study participants
were 60 or older, and had no major psychiatric illnesses or life
threatening medical illnesses. Participants were Caucasian,
African-American or Hispanic.
The extensive testing
included multidisciplinary diagnostic evaluations through the UC Davis
Alzheimer’s Disease Center in either English or Spanish, which permitted
comparisons across a diverse cohort of participants.
previous research, the study found that non-Latino Caucasians scored 20
to 25 percent higher on tests of semantic memory (general knowledge) and
13 to 15 percent higher on tests of executive functioning compared to
the other ethnic groups. However, ethnic differences in executive
functioning disappeared and differences in semantic memory were reduced
by 20 to 30 percent when group differences in childhood socioeconomic
status, adult literacy and extent of physical activity during adulthood
“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
“It shows that
variables like ethnicity and years of education that influence cognitive
test scores in a single evaluation are not associated with rate of
cognitive decline, but that specific life experiences like level of
reading attainment and intellectually stimulating activities are
predictive of the rate of late-life cognitive decline. This suggests
that intellectual stimulation throughout the life span can reduce
cognitive decline in old age."
ethnicity, advanced age and apolipoprotein-E (APOE genotype) were
associated with increased cognitive decline over an average of four
years that participants were followed. APOE is the largest known genetic
risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer's.
Less decline was
experienced by persons who reported more engagement in recreational
activities in late life and who maintained their levels of activity
engagement from middle age to old age.
Single-word reading —
the ability to decode a word on sight, which often is considered an
indication of quality of educational experience — was also associated
with less cognitive decline, a finding that was true for both English
and Spanish readers, irrespective of their race or ethnicity.
These findings suggest
that early life experiences affect late-life cognition indirectly,
through literacy and late-life recreational pursuits, the authors said.
“These findings are
important,” explained Paul Brewster, lead author of the study, a
doctoral student at the
University of Victoria, Canada, and
a pre-doctoral psychology intern at the
UC San Diego Department of Psychiatry,
“because it challenges earlier research that suggests associations
between race and ethnicity, particularly among Latinos, and an increased
risk of late-life cognitive impairment and dementia.
”Our findings suggest
that the influences of demographic factors on late-life cognition may be
reflective of broader socioeconomic factors, such as educational
opportunity and related differences in physical and mental activity
across the life span.”
The other study
authors are Rebecca J. Melrose, UCLA and the VA Greater Los Angeles
Health System; Maria Marquine, UC San Diego; Julene K. Johnson and Anna
Napoles, UC San Francisco; Anna McKay-Brandt, Nathan Kline Institute for
Psychiatric Research, New York; and Sarah Farias, Bruce Reed and Dan
Mungas, UC Davis.
The study was
supported by grants from the U.S. National Institute on Aging and a
grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health. It was developed as part
of a conference sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and
organized by UC Davis that promotes collaborative science in cognitive
The UC Davis
Alzheimer's Disease Center, Sacramento, California, is one of only 27
research centers designated by the National Institutes of Health's
National Institute on Aging. The center's goal is to translate research
advances into improved diagnosis and treatment for patients while
focusing on the long-term goal of finding a way to prevent or cure
Alzheimer's disease. Also funded by the state of California, the center
allows researchers to study the effects of the disease on a uniquely
diverse population. For more information, visit
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