A Life-Course Study of Cognitive Reserve in Dementia--From Childhood to Old Age

Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2015 Sep;23(9):885-96. doi: 10.1016/j.jagp.2015.02.002. Epub 2015 Feb 11.


Objective: To test a life-course model of cognitive reserve in dementia and examine if school grades around age 10 years, formal educational attainment, and lifetime occupational complexity affect the risk of dementia in old age.

Methods: 7,574 men and women from the Uppsala Birth Cohort Multigenerational Study were followed for 21 years. Information on school performance, formal education, and occupational attainment was collected prospectively from elementary school archives and population censuses. Dementia diagnosis was extracted from the two Swedish registers. Discrete-time Cox proportional hazard models were estimated.

Results: Dementia was diagnosed in 950 individuals (12.5%). Dementia risk was lower among individuals with higher childhood school grades (hazard ratio [HR]: 0.79; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.68 to 0.93) and was lower among individuals in data-complex occupations (HR: 0.77; 95% CI: 0.64 to 0.92). Professional/university education predicted lower risk of dementia in minimally adjusted models (HR: 0.74; 95% CI: 0.60 to 0.91), although the effect faded with adjustment for occupational complexity. Lowest risk was found in the group with both higher childhood school performance and high occupational complexity with data (HR: 0.61; 95% CI: 0.50 to 0.75). Importantly, high occupational complexity could not compensate for the effect of low childhood grades. In contrast, dementia risk was reduced in those with higher school grades, irrespective of occupational complexity.

Conclusion: Higher childhood school performance is protective of dementia risk, particularly when preserved through complex work environments in adulthood, although it will remain protective even in the absence of later-life educational or occupational stimulation.

Keywords: Dementia; cognitive reserve; life course.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Cognitive Reserve*
  • Dementia / diagnosis
  • Dementia / epidemiology
  • Dementia / psychology*
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Occupations
  • Registries
  • Risk Factors
  • Sweden / epidemiology