Scientists have long believed that age-related declines in memory, reasoning and comprehension begin around our 60th birthday, but new evidence from France’s Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health shows they may actually occur in people as young as 45. Researchers say risk factors for heart attack and stroke, such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, may contribute to this cognitive decline by affecting brain blood vessels and cells.
“There is emerging consensus that ‘what is good for our hearts is also good for our heads,’ making aggressive control of behavioral and cardiovascular risk factors as early as possible key targets for clinical practice and public health,” wrote French researcher Archana Singh-Manoux, PhD, in a study published in January 2012 in the British Medical Journal. “Determining the age window at which potential interventions are likely to be most beneficial is also a crucial next step.”
Singh-Manoux and her team analyzed a British study of Whitehall civil servants. The decade-long study began in 1997 and included 5,198 men and 2,192 women between the ages of 45 and 70. During the course of the study, participants were tested three different times on verbal and mathematical reasoning, short-term memory and vocabulary.
After taking education levels into account, the testing showed declines in everything but vocabulary at all age levels. Men who were age 45 to 49 when testing began had a 3.6 percent drop in mental reasoning, compared to a 9.6 percent decrease among men older than 65. Women age 45 to 49 also had a 3.6 percent decline, while women older than 65 showed a 7.4 percent decrease.
“Greater awareness of the fact that our cognitive status is not intact until deep old age might lead individuals to make changes in their lifestyle and improve cardiovascular health to reduce risk of adverse cognitive outcomes in old age,” Singh-Manoux concluded.
Dr. Murray points out that dietary factors are clearly important in the development of cognitive decline. A diet high in saturated fat and trans fatty acids, and low in dietary antioxidants, potentially leads to neurologic damage. The key dietary factors that reduce cognitive function loss are higher fish consumption (and omega-3 fatty acids), monounsaturated fatty acids (primarily from olive oil), light to moderate alcohol use (primarily red wine) and increased non-starchy vegetable and fruit consumption. It is likely that the combination of all of these factors provides the highest degree of protection, versus any single dietary factor.