Moving up in life could lower dementia risk, says new study


A fascinating new study from Japan has found that improving your socioeconomic status over your lifetime may help reduce your risk of developing dementia later on.

The research, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, provides some of the strongest evidence yet linking upward social mobility to better brain health as you age.

Dementia, an umbrella term for conditions involving memory loss and cognitive decline, already affects millions worldwide and puts immense strain on families and healthcare systems. Previous studies have hinted that factors like education level, income, and occupation may influence someone’s dementia risk. However, this latest analysis from Osaka University researchers directly examined how shifts in socioeconomic status across a person’s life course impacted their odds of developing the condition.

The team analysed data from over 9,000 Japanese adults aged 65 and older who were followed for six years. They categorised participants into six groups based on whether their socioeconomic standing had been stable, improved, or declined between childhood and older adulthood.

The findings were striking – those whose socioeconomic status increased over their lifetime had the lowest risk of dementia and the longest estimated “healthy longevity” without cognitive impairment after age 75. In contrast, individuals who experienced downward social mobility faced the highest dementia risk and shortest dementia-free lifespan.

Interestingly, the benefits of improving one’s circumstances seemed to outweigh even being born into a higher socioeconomic bracket. “Our finding that upward social mobility throughout a person’s life correlates with a prolonged period of dementia-free aging means that improving socioeconomic conditions could be a key to dementia prevention and healthier longevity,” explained lead author Ryoto Sakaniwa.

So what underlying factors might explain this link? The researchers found that positive lifestyle behaviours like exercise, lack of smoking, and management of conditions like diabetes played a big role in the dementia-reducing effects of upward mobility. Conversely, declining social status was associated with less social engagement, a known risk factor for cognitive decline.

The implications are profound – by creating opportunities for people to boost their education, income, and overall quality of life as they move through adulthood, we may be able to help more individuals maintain healthy brain function into their later years.

“Future research should delve deeper into the mechanisms by which SES influences cognitive health, including potential interventions for mitigating dementia risk,” senior author Hiroyasu Iso says.

The study has its limitations, and more research will be needed from other populations.

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