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Published on: December 13, 2012
by Fiona MacRae for The Daily Mail:
It is often dismissed as a disease of old age. But the fight against Alzheimer’s could start at school and last for life. Research has pinpointed three stages in life which appear to play a key role in keeping Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia at bay.
The first is the length of a person’s education, including the number of years spent at school and university.
Next on the timeline is having a demanding working life. Finally, having a good social life in later years also seems to be important. All help keep the mind sharper for longer, something that should help people keep their independence, as well as give them precious extra months and years to enjoy with their loved ones.
For the study, the first to look at the topic in such detail, almost 12,500 British pensioners were asked about their education, their main job when they worked and their social life in later years.
For instance, they were asked if they went to an evening class and how often they saw relatives and neighbours.
Their mental health was then tracked for 16 years. The study, part-funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, found that those who were more mentally active had a lower risk of developing memory problems in old age.
Unlike previous studies, it also linked an active mind with a slower decline into severe dementia.
A longer education and a more mentally demanding career were both associated with a lower risk of making the transition from having a normal memory to having the sort of mild problems that can often precede dementia.
And those with a busy retirement had a lower risk of mild memory problems deteriorating to moderate problems that could lead to a diagnosis of the disease.
Those who were mentally active were also more likely to spend less time in the final, and most debilitating stage of dementia. The researchers calculated this to mean that a 65-year-old man with a very good education, good job and sociable retirement would live to 81, on average.
This is around three years longer than one who had a brief education, an undemanding job and lonely later years. The analysis, detailed in the journal PLoS ONE, also found keeping the brain busy increased the odds of people recovering from slight memory problems.
The researchers didn’t look at why keeping the mind active throughout life keeps dementia at bay but it is thought that a more elastic brain is better able to compensate and cope with the changes that occur near the beginning of the disease.
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