If you were good with words and puzzles at age eight, you're likely to fare well on tests of mental acuity at age 70, too.
That's among the findings of a new study that followed the thinking abilities of a group of Britons born in the 1940s. Researchers found that their performance on standard cognitive tests at age eight predicted their performance around age 70. People who scored in the top quarter as kids were likely to remain in that bracket later in life.
Education also matters
"Cognition" refers to our ability to pay attention, process information, commit things to memory, to reason and to solve problems.
And it's no surprise, experts said, that there is a correlation between childhood and adulthood skills.
However, no one is saying that your brain-health destiny is set in childhood, according to senior researcher Dr Jonathan Schott, a professor of neurology at University College London.
In this study, for example, education also mattered. Older adults who'd gone further in their formal education tended to score higher, regardless of their test performance as children.
A number of past studies have linked higher education levels to a lower risk of dementia. And the new findings bolster that evidence, said Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer's Association.
"It's really unique to have data like this, from a cohort that was followed for 60 years," said Edelmayer, who was not involved in the study.
Learn something completely new
Why would education matter in dementia risk? It's not certain, but Dr Glen Finney, a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, explained the "cognitive reserve" theory: Dementia is marked by the build-up of abnormal proteins known as "plaques" and "tangles". In people with more education, the brain might be better equipped to compensate for such damage, allowing it to function normally for a longer period.
It's also thought that mental engagement later in life might hold similar benefits. That could mean "challenging yourself to learn something completely new" – like studying an instrument or a foreign language, said Finney, who directs the Geisinger Health System's Memory and Cognition Program in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was also not part of the study.
Beyond education, Finney noted, there is a body of evidence that other lifestyle factors are important in healthy brain aging. Blood pressure control is one, he said.
Finney pointed to a recent clinical trial finding that intensive treatment of high blood pressure lowered older adults' risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.
That refers to subtler problems with memory and thinking that may precede dementia.
In general, the same things that protect the heart – exercise, controlling cholesterol and blood sugar, and a healthy diet – are also believed to be good for the brain, Edelmayer said.
Memory and information processing
"We just don't know yet what the best recipe is for [dementia] risk reduction," she said.
The current findings were published online in Neurology. They're based on more than 500 UK adults born in 1946. When they were eight years old, they took tests of reading comprehension and other skills. When they were around age 70, they were tested for skills like memory and information processing.
They also underwent PET scans to detect any build-up of plaques in the brain.
It turned out that among participants who tested "cognitively normal", about 18% did have signs of plaques in their brains. And on average, their test scores were lower, versus participants with no evidence of plaques.
That does not mean those people are destined to develop dementia, Edelmayer pointed out.
However, the findings do support a growing belief among researchers, according to Schott.
Certain biological 'markers'
The fact that plaques exert subtle influences on mental performance even in people without symptoms is noteworthy. This "provides more evidence for the growing view that when disease-modifying therapies become available, they may have maximum benefits when given very early – and ideally prior to symptom onset," Schott said.
How would that be done? In the future, Edelmayer said, it might be possible to use certain biological "markers" – such as plaques seen in brain scans – to identify people who are on a trajectory toward dementia.
"But we're not there yet," she stressed. "There's a lot of work to be done."
According to the Alzheimer's Association, 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease – a number that is expected to balloon to nearly 14 million by 2050.