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Early life experiences are important for cognitive abilities later in life

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Initiatives to avoid cognitive decline later in life generally include a commitment to good nutrition and exercise. New research shows early life experiences have also been found to contribute to cognitive abilities in old age reported Science Daily on July 25, 2014. There appears to be a greater influence on the risk of cognitive impairment late in life from early life experiences such as childhood socioeconomic status and literacy than on such demographic characteristics as race and ethnicity.

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In fact researchers have found experiences at every stage of life contribute to cognitive abilities later in life reports UC Davis Health System. Dr. Bruce Reed, a professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center, points out that declining cognitive function in older adults is a serious personal and public health concern. However, not all people lose cognitive function as they age. Therefore, clearly an understanding the remarkable variability in cognitive trajectories as people age is of vital importance for prevention, treatment and planning to nurture successful cognitive aging.

Dr. Dan Mungas, who is also a professor of neurology and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, says this study is unusual because it examines how many different life experiences affect cognitive decline as people age. This study shows that variables such as ethnicity and years of education that influence cognitive test scores in a single evaluation are not actually associated with rates of cognitive decline. Instead specific life experiences such as level of reading attainment and intellectually stimulating activities serve as predictors of the rate of cognitive decline later in life. What this suggests is that intellectual stimulation throughout the entire life span of a person can decrease cognitive decline in old age.

This study, “Life Experiences and Demographic Influences on Cognitive Function in Older Adults,” has been published online in Neuropsychology, which is a journal of the American Psychological Association. The researchers have concluded that life experience variables, particularly literacy level, were strongly associated with baseline cognition and substantially attenuated the effects of ethnicity and education. Literacy was found to have robust associations with baseline cognition and cognitive change. It appears to therefore be a good idea to encourage intellectual stimulation throughout a person's lifetime beginning when a child is very young in order to help nurture a healthy brain late into life.

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