Brain function can start declining 'as early as age 45'

Memory loss (generic image) Individuals were tested for memory, vocabulary and aural and visual comprehension skills

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The brain's ability to function can start to deteriorate as early as 45, suggests a study in the British Medical Journal.

University College London researchers found a 3.6% decline in mental reasoning in women and men aged 45-49.

They assessed the memory, vocabulary and comprehension skills of 7,000 men and women aged 45 to 70 over 10 years.

The Alzheimer's Society said research was needed into how changes in the brain could help dementia diagnoses.

Previous research had suggested that cognitive decline does not begin much before the age of 60.

But the results of this study show that it could in fact begin in middle age.

This is important, the researchers say, because dementia treatments are more likely to work at the time when individuals start to experience mental impairment.

The UCL researchers tested the cognitive functions of 5,198 men and 2,192 women aged 45 to 70, who were all UK civil servants, from 1997 to 2007.

Individuals were tested for memory, vocabulary and aural and visual comprehension skills.

Differences in education level were taken into account.

Mid-life crisis

The results of the tests show that cognitive scores declined in all categories except vocabulary - and there was a faster decline in older people.

The study found a 9.6% decline in mental reasoning in men aged 65-70 and a 7.4% decline for women of the same age.

For men and women aged 45-49, there was a 3.6% decline.

Professor Archana Singh-Manoux from the Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health in France, who led the research team at University College London, said the evidence from the study showed that dementia involved cognitive decline over two to three decades.

Dr Anne Corbett, Alzheimer's Society: 'There are things people can do to reduce their chances of getting dementia later down the line'

"We now need to look at who experiences cognitive decline more than the average and how we stop the decline. Some level of prevention is definitely possible.

"Rates of dementia are going to soar and health behaviours like smoking and physical activity are linked to levels of cognitive function.

"It's important to identify the risk factors early. If the disease has started in an individual's 50s but we only start looking at risk in their 60s, then how do you start separating cause and effect?"

Lifestyle choices

Start Quote

If the disease has started in an individual's 50s but we only start looking at risk in their 60s, then how do you start separating cause and effect?”

End Quote Professor Archana Singh-Manoux UCL

Dr Anne Corbett, research manager at the Alzheimer's Society, said the study added to the debate on when cognitive decline began, but it left some questions unanswered.

"The study does not tell us whether any of these people went on to develop dementia, nor how feasible it would be for GPs to detect these early changes.

"More research is now needed to help us fully understand how measurable changes in the brain can help us improve diagnosis of dementia."

Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said he wanted to see similar studies carried out in a wider population sample.

He added: "Previous research suggests that our health in mid-life affects our risk of dementia as we age, and these findings give us all an extra reason to stick to our New Year's resolutions.

"Although we don't yet have a sure-fire way to prevent dementia, we do know that simple lifestyle changes - such as eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check - can all reduce the risk of dementia."

Professor Lindsey Davies, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said that people should not wait until their bodies and minds broke down before taking action.

"We need only look at the problems that childhood obesity rates will cause if they are not addressed to see how important it is that we take 'cradle to grave' approach to public health."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    "Nothing can strengthen the brain and intellect and impart such mental power as much as the study of God's word, the Holy Bible. The mind thus brought in contact with the thoughts and truths of God cannot but expand and strengthen."

    - what? this person has already lost the power of rational thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    16 Luther_Wesley-Baxter

    Blessed are the Cheesemakers! Presumably, according to your argument, this augurs well for the makers of finest Wendslydale.

    Seriously though this is another example of half baked science from 2nd rate scientists after a research grant!

    Some people have limited mental faculties to start with and what they do have is degraded everytime they vote Labour!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Is it always our brain function and memory deteriorates or is it that as we get older we just cant be bothered?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I've forgotton what I was going to write

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Mmmm..... be interesting to see how this relates to having to work till you are 68 for your pension!

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Yes, it started in certain aspects in late 40s.

    However.........they did not cover wisdom!

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    As John (response 40) says, civil servants are not encouraged to use their brains, so I think it may be a case of 'use it or lose it'. This is why they need such large pensions, as they will find it hard to survive in the real world once they retire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Of more relevance to UK society is that people are less educated than they were 25 years ago. Sadly these new, less educated, individuals are changing things ..for the worse. However, out of the 1000 things that are worse,1 thing that is better = self scanning in supermarkets. Don`t you just love it

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I work full time as a medical claims assessor, Im 44 but Ive noticed already memory loss and trouble seeing things (reminder ! must get an eye test !) I have trouble learning new stuff at work already, Ive no idea how I will be able to work to the acceptable levels until I am 67 / 68 !

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I'm pretty sure the average politician is over age 45

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    The results may be affected by lifestyle changes in society over the 10 year period i.e. greater dependence on PCs (spell check, excel etc), increased usage of television, a deterioration of teaching standards from the 1980s onwards, dietary changes, the effects of mobile telephones etc?
    How is that for a reasoned demonstration of comprehension skills?
    There again, I am not 45 until March!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I think most people notice this with themselves and partners but won't admit it and stay in denial. There is clear denial in some of the comments posted here.

    We are in our 50s and have noticed a slow decline in some capability starting in late 40s. But it is possible to minimise the impact through regular mental exercise.

    If you work in a high pressure complex job it is much more obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    As far as I can see most people's solution to avoiding wearing their brain out is to use it as little as possible..

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    @6 I have a vague recollection that there was a topic recently that didn't get properly discussed on this site, unfortunately I'm well over 50 so have completely forgotten what it concerned due to my fading memory, can anyone remember what the subject was pertaining to? Apparently it's only short term memory which is affected, long term (up to 20 years) is perfect..

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    D' oh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I'm 43 and have noticed a definite decline over at least the last 3 years in both brain function and eyesight. I don't smoke or watch television but maybe I should start. Perhaps the survey should have started sooner?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Another attempt by University academics and Civil Servants to retire before everyone else? What next social class, ethnicity?

    But seriously BBC please expand on details; if a cognitive score declines by x% what does this mean? Is this % a point estimate of the population mean? What is the CIs? If all are not declining by the age of 45 does it mean some are still to peak or is it exptl error?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    So a good diet, not smoking and being in control of your blood pressure and cholesterol can reduce the risk of dementia, there's a shock!

    Another piece of pointless research funded by the taxes of drinkers and smokers.

    Why do they want us all to live longer?

    @ 16 thank you for your insane views, religion has probably caused more deaths throughout history than anything else!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    uggh what were we talking about ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    The Civil service depends on people NOT having good ideas, but following the set procedures. As a short term civil servant I find that incredibly frustrating, but I understand why.

    However, because of that many civil servants don't keep mentally as 'fit' as they ought - then their cognitive abilities decline in the same way as physical abilities decline if you don't exercise.


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