Early experience and dementia
Researchers conducting a large research programme in the Data Portal are looking into how childhood experiences of adversity impact brain health right across the lifespan.
Brain health - a lifetime story
Poverty, emotional abuse and sexual abuse are traumatic experiences that some children grow up with. Psychologists group these using the term ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs) – and DPUK researchers are uncovering new evidence on the extent to which they impact upon brain health across the entire lifespan. The research is reinforcing understanding that dementia prevention may need to begin in childhood.
Psychologists now understand that ACEs are not solely a feature of child mental health. Increasingly, studies are showing that ACEs associate with health outcomes later in life, including risk of dementia. However, it's not a simple story: adversity in childhood often comprises an enormous set of interlinking difficult circumstances. The DPUK researchers are tackling these cumulative effects comprehensively, for the first time.
Abuse is not an isolated condition. To understand exactly how ACEs impact dementia risk, we need to look at childhood experiences together, not individually.
- Dr Sarah Bauermeister
Going back in time in the data
The research team is using 13 DPUK cohorts in the Data Portal to investigate the links between early childhood experiences and later-life dementia. They are tackling different angles: one recently published paper demonstrates how ACEs are linked with visible shrinkage of certain parts of the brain; other researchers are focused on ACEs' specific impact on cognition and educational attainment.
Working with diverse yet comparable data in the DPUK Data Portal allows the researchers to work with the complexity that’s intrinsic to this study area. This is why quality long-term cohort data is such a crucial piece of the puzzle. Making these sorts of comparisons and links is something that's never been done at scale before.
Childhood adversity and dementia - what is going on in the brain?
There are a few theories as to why ACEs trigger brain degeneration: the first is that impaired mental health as a result of early childhood adversity could lead to mental illness down the road, which is associated with an increased risk of dementia. The other possibility is that the stress induced by ACEs may have a physical impact on the brain.
The researchers are seeing that early childhood experiences of adversity are a strong predictor of midlife stress and poor mental health. This is associated with dementia. By demonstrating these associations with dementia, this research is building on the body of evidence which bolsters the call to prioritise good mental health right across the lifespan.
In our Data Portal study we're seeing some evidence that this stress caused by adversity in childhood is associated with physical changes in the brain.
Implications of the research
- It's never too early to prevent dementia.
- Adversity resulting from experiences in childhood may accumulate as stress to the brain, which is associated with risk of dementia in later life.
- Distressing childhood experiences may be associated with changes to physical structures in the brain.
Early experience and dementia research programme
DPUK enabled this research
Introducing the Data Portal
The Data Portal allows researchers to conduct research with multiple long-term health study datasets, known as cohorts. Sarah and the research team are using data from 13 cohorts in this cross-cohort analysis.