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Lifestyle choices in young adulthood impact cognitive ability in midlife

As we navigate life, our habits and lifestyle choices in early adulthood, including those that affect inflammation, may have more bearing on future health than once believed.

In particular, decisions made during our 20s could play a significant role in our mental acuity during middle age.

The hidden consequences of inflammation

Obesity, physical inactivity, chronic illness, stress, and smoking in our youth do not just affect our physical health, they are also linked with inflammation.

What’s more, a recent study out of UC San Francisco has discovered a connection between higher levels of inflammation in young adulthood and reduced cognitive function in midlife.

Historically, scientific research has connected higher inflammation in older adults with dementia. However, this groundbreaking study is one of the earliest to draw a link between early-adult inflammation and middle-aged cognitive abilities.

“Late-life inflammation has been linked to dementia risk and preclinical cognitive decline, but less is known about early adult inflammation and whether this could influence cognition in midlife,” wrote the researchers.

“We aimed to identify inflammation levels through early adulthood and determine association of these trajectories with midlife cognition.”

The slow march of cognitive decline

“Brain changes leading to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias may take decades to develop,” noted study first author Dr. Amber Bahorik of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

It is suggested that health and lifestyle habits formed in early adulthood could potentially affect cognitive skills in midlife that may later influence the incidence of dementia in one’s senior years.

The study revealed that only 10% of participants with low inflammation performed poorly on tests measuring processing speed and memory. Comparatively, about 20% of participants with moderate or higher levels of inflammation scored poorly on the same tests.

Even when the researchers factored in variables such as age, physical activity, and total cholesterol, the disparities in processing speed remained. They also discovered differences in executive functioning, which includes capabilities like working memory, problem-solving, and impulse control.

The study: A long-term view

The study followed 2,364 adults in the CARDIA study, which focuses on identifying factors in young adulthood that could lead to cardiovascular disease later in life.

Participants were aged between 18 to 30 years old at the start of the study and tested four times over an 18-year period for the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP).

Their cognitive tests were taken five years after their last CRP measurement when most participants were in their forties and fifties.

The experts concluded that inflammation plays a significant role in cognitive aging and may begin in early adulthood.

It was also discovered that higher levels of inflammation were correlated with physical inactivity, high BMI, and current smoking habits.

Reducing inflammation for a healthier future

The silver lining in this study is the potential for prevention. By reducing inflammation through healthier lifestyle choices like increased physical activity and eliminating smoking, individuals may be able to protect their cognitive abilities later in life.

“Fortunately, there are ways to reduce inflammation that might be promising paths for prevention,” said study senior author Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, neurology, and epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF.

So even facing these findings, there’s hope for us all to age with grace and mental clarity by making mindful decisions in our youth.

Mental stimulation and social engagement

Mental stimulation and social interaction are other significant factors that contribute to cognitive health as we age.

Engaging in intellectually challenging activities such as learning a new language, solving puzzles, or playing musical instruments can enhance cognitive reserve – the brain’s ability to improvise and find alternative ways of completing tasks.

Social engagement acts as a protective barrier against cognitive decline by reducing stress, fostering emotional support, and promoting neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself.

Studies have found that individuals who maintain strong social ties and participate in community activities tend to exhibit better cognitive performance in midlife.

Therefore, nurturing a socially active and mentally stimulating lifestyle in young adulthood could be a decisive factor in sustaining cognitive health in later years.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.


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