As our brains age, we're less likely to think as quickly as we
used to or remember things as well. NIH research has made progress
uncovering hints about how to keep our brains in shape as we age.
But with more Americans living longer, NIH's research portfolio
needs to identify and develop proven strategies to preserve brain
health as people grow older. A new report by an expert panel suggests
a number of promising avenues for further research into maintaining
or enhancing both cognitive and emotional function as people age.
The report stems from the trans-NIH Cognitive and Emotional Health
Project, which was established by NIA, NIMH and NINDS to identify
the demographic, social and biological determinants of cognitive
and emotional health in older adults. The project formed a panel
of experts, the critical evaluation study committee, to analyze
the existing scientific literature and identify factors involved
in the maintenance of cognitive and emotional health. Based on
this analysis, the committee was to outline strengths and weaknesses
in our knowledge and offer suggestions for future research opportunities.
The committee looked for large longitudinal cohort studies that
considered a wide variety of demographic, psychosocial and biological
factors and their effects on both cognition and emotion, predominantly
in people age 65 or older. Examples of outcomes included cognitive
performance and decline. Measures of emotion included the presence
of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms and resilience. The committee
eventually identified 96 papers from 26 studies for further analysis.
The report, published in Alzheimer's and Dementia: The Journal
of the Alzheimer's Association, concluded that several factors
appear to be associated with the health of the aging brain. These
include education, cardiovascular health, physical activity, psychosocial
factors (such as emotional support, social engagement and stress),
chronic illness and genetics. Overall, the committee identified
more than 40 factors that may play a role. They also raised many
possibilities for potential interventions.
Of particular note was cardiovascular (CV) disease. An increasing
number of published studies suggest that traditional risk factors
for CV disease are also risk factors for cognitive decline. Modifiable
lifestyle factors that may help stave off cognitive decline thus
include diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake and sleeping
habits. The group stressed that research aimed at directly testing
such interventions deserves more attention.
The committee also highlighted the ties between emotion and cognition.
A history of symptoms such as depression or anxiety, for example,
is associated with both poorer cognitive and emotional health in
late life. Either the relationship between emotion and cognition
is bidirectional or they are affected by a common underlying process.
Since the two are inextricably linked, the report concludes, future
research in the field would be well served by studying them simultaneously.
NIH is intensifying the search for strategies to preserve brain
health as people grow older. This report helps to illuminate a
number of promising avenues. For more information, see http://trans.nih.gov/CEHP.