Multiple biological pathways link cognitive lifestyle to protection from dementia

Biol Psychiatry. 2012 May 1;71(9):783-91. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.07.036. Epub 2011 Nov 4.


Background: An active cognitive lifestyle is linked to diminished dementia risk, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Potential mechanisms include disease modification, neuroprotection, and compensation. Prospective, population-based brain series provide the rare opportunity to test the plausibility of these mechanisms in humans.

Methods: Participants came from the United Kingdom Medical Research Council Cognitive Function and Ageing Study, comprising 13,004 individuals aged over 65 years and followed for 14 years. In study 1, a Cognitive Lifestyle Score (CLS) was computed on all Cognitive Function and Ageing Study subjects to define low, middle, and high groups. By August 2004, 329 individuals with CLS data had come to autopsy and underwent Consortium to Establish a Registry of Alzheimer's Disease assessment. Study 2 involved more detailed quantitative histology in the hippocampus and Brodmann area 9 in 72 clinically matched individuals with high and low CLS.

Results: CLS groups did not differ on several Alzheimer disease neuropathologic measures; however, high CLS men had less cerebrovascular disease after accounting for vascular risk factors, and women had greater brain weight. No group differences were evident in hippocampal neuronal density. In Brodmann area 9, cognitively active individuals had significantly greater neuronal density, as well as correlated increases in cortical thickness.

Conclusions: An active cognitive lifestyle was associated with protection from cerebrovascular disease in men, but there was no evidence for Alzheimer disease modification or hippocampal neuroprotection. Men and women both exhibited neurotrophic changes in the prefrontal lobe linked to cognitive lifestyle, consistent with a compensatory process. Lifespan complex cognitive activity may therefore protect against dementia through multiple biological pathways.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / complications
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Alzheimer Disease / psychology
  • Brain / pathology
  • Cell Count / methods
  • Cell Count / statistics & numerical data
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / complications
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / pathology
  • Cognition*
  • Dementia / complications
  • Dementia / pathology*
  • Dementia / psychology*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Hypertrophy / pathology
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology*
  • Sex Characteristics