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A new study in the DPUK Data Portal has found that social and lifestyle factors – such as education, income and physical activity – have a direct effect on cognitive performance. The researchers also showed that late-life lifestyle factors may help preserve cognitive function indirectly by reducing the degeneration of brain cells.

A sheet of MRI scans of a person's head.

The researchers studied more than 2,300 participants from the Memento study, a French nationwide clinical cohort. Their aim was to investigate the links between social and lifestyle factors, dementia biomarkers gleaned from brain imaging and other techniques, and cognitive function.

Results suggest that social and lifestyle factors may influence cognition through different mechanisms, as well as offering support to the idea that investing in education and early-life cognitive-enhancing activities may have an impact on cognitive health later in life.

We spoke to the study’s lead author, Dr Leslie Grasset of the University of Bordeaux, to learn more about the research. The paper is published in the journal Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy.

What were you setting out to achieve with this research?

"In the absence of therapies to prevent or treat dementia, and with the global increase in its prevalence, it is critical to identify factors that could slow the course of cognitive decline and therefore delay dementia onset. Research focusing on different modifiable factors known for promoting resilience against dementia over our lifespans is of high interest for planning future prevention strategies.

In this study, we investigated the mechanisms involved in the associations between factors that protect against dementia and cognitive function. This is required to help us better understand their contribution to resilience or resistance pathways. We tried to differentiate the roles of two types of factor (early-to-midlife social factors and late-life lifestyle factors) through different biomarkers related to Alzheimer’s disease pathology, cerebrovascular disease, and neurodegeneration."

What did you find?

"We demonstrated evidence for two different pathways between early-to-midlife social factors and late-life lifestyle factors with cognitive function.

First, higher levels of early-to-midlife social factors were only directly associated with better cognitive function, with no indirect pathways through biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Second, in addition to a direct effect on cognition, the association between higher levels of late-life lifestyle factors and cognition was also partly influenced by lower neurodegeneration, but not by Alzheimer’s disease or cerebrovascular pathologies."

What is the significance of these results?

"Although the results should be interpreted with caution, our study suggests that social and lifestyle factors may influence cognition through different mechanisms over the life course. On one hand, the direct association between higher levels of social factors in early to midlife with higher cognitive performance is in agreement with the hypothesis that intellectual stimulation throughout life (mostly through education, occupation and socioeconomic status) helps maintain cognitive performance despite the development of brain pathology. Intellectual stimulation likely contributes to cognitive reserve over the life course.

On the other hand, our results suggest that higher levels of lifestyle factors later in life may contribute to better brain health, which in turn leads to preserved cognitive performance. Our findings do not support a contribution of social and lifestyle factors to resistance against Alzheimer’s disease or cerebrovascular pathologies."

How was your experience of using the DPUK Data Portal for this research?

"Using the DPUK Data Portal was really useful for this research, especially during the pandemic. The assistance team was always incredibly helpful and reactive in case of technical problems (which were quite rare). I would definitely recommend using the DPUK Data Portal, as it is a great platform to conduct large research projects, with the opportunity to access different available cohorts."