A study published in Neurology on March 17, 2021, sheds light on the long-term cognitive implications of health issues experienced by individuals in their 20s and 30s.
According to the research, young adults with health concerns such as high blood pressure, obesity, and high blood glucose levels might face an increased risk of cognitive decline in later life compared to their healthier counterparts.
The study, led by Kristine Yaffe, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, emphasizes the significance of early adulthood as a pivotal period for future cognitive health.
“Early adulthood may be a critical time for the relationship between these health issues and late-life cognitive skills,” Yaffe stated.
The implication is that addressing or modifying these health issues early on could potentially prevent or lessen cognitive difficulties in older age.
Researchers pooled data from four studies, encompassing around 15,000 individuals aged 18 to 95, who were followed for periods ranging from 10 to 30 years.
The participants underwent regular assessments of body mass index (BMI), blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and their thinking and memory skills were tested every one to two years.
For older participants, the researchers estimated their cardiovascular risk factors from earlier life stages. They then examined the association between cardiovascular problems at various life stages and the decline in thinking and memory test scores in later life.
The study found that high BMI, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels were linked to a greater decline in cognitive abilities in later years.
These health issues in early adulthood were associated with the most significant change in cognitive abilities, essentially doubling the average rate of cognitive decline over a decade.
Interestingly, high total cholesterol levels did not correlate with a greater decline in cognitive skills.
Specifically, individuals with a BMI over 30 in their 20s and 30s showed a cognitive decline rate twice that of individuals with normal BMI.
Similarly, those with systolic blood pressure above 140 mmHg during these years, and those with high blood glucose levels, exhibited even more significant cognitive declines.
Yaffe noted the potential public health implications of these findings, especially considering the increasing prevalence of diabetes and obesity among young adults.
However, she also emphasized that the study demonstrates an association rather than a cause-and-effect relationship between early-life health issues and later-life cognitive decline.
A limitation of the study is the estimation of early-life cardiovascular risk factors for older participants, which may not be entirely accurate.
Despite this, the study highlights the importance of maintaining good health in early adulthood as a potential means of safeguarding cognitive abilities in later life.
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The research findings can be found in Neurology.
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