How has our changing lifestyle affected brain health over time?

Lead researcher: Prof Fiona Matthews
Institution: University of Newcastle
Grant type: PhD
Duration: 3 years
Amount: £70,117
Scientific title: Cognitive Lifestyle: Impact of a changing society on the ageing brain

Why did we fund this project? 

Comments from the Research Network

'An important large sample study which would build on an existing body of data.'

'The 'Use it or lose it' idea is bandied about in the media. This PhD studentship promises a continuing investigation of the factors involved. A solid proposal with good supervision.'

'This research has the possibility of potentially slowing the progress of dementia and amazingly reducing the risk of even developing dementia'

What do we already know?

We know that lifestyle factors that challenge the brain such as education, job complexity and having an active social life can influence the health of our brains over time. Evidence shows that people who are highly educated, have more challenging jobs and often socialise or engage in other mentally stimulating activities may have a reduced risk of developing dementia. Together these brain-stimulating activities are known as a 'cognitive lifestyle.'

There are a number of theories as to how a cognitive lifestyle may protect against dementia. One theory is that these activities can help the brain cells to be more resistant to the damage caused by the mechanisms that underlie dementia, or that they help some parts of the brain compensate for damage done elsewhere. Another theory is that this lifestyle can actually prevent or slow down the damaging mechanisms. 

What does this project involve?

The aim of this research is to understand how cognitive lifestyle has changed over two decades and how this has affected dementia risk. The researchers will do an in-depth analysis of the findings of several long-term studies that are looking into lifestyle and ageing, including the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study (CFAS).

The information gained from these studies will help with understanding how cognitive lifestyle has changed and how this has influenced our brain health over time. It will also allow for the development of scores to accurately measure cognitive lifestyle across other studies. Finally, the PhD student on this project will determine whether there are any adaptations that people can make to their cognitive lifestyle to potentially prevent or delay the onset of dementia.

How will this benefit people affected by dementia?

There is a growing amount of evidence that there are things that we can do throughout our lives to reduce the risk of developing dementia. This study will allow us to understand more about what changes to our lifestyles, particularly regarding brain-stimulating activities, can be made to reduce dementia risk or to slow cognitive decline.