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

Related Stories

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."


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    If you really want to understand...sit down with an older person and ask them an intelligent question. Yes, they do have an incredible story to tell. Watch their face as they recall their period of history or the joy that spreads across their face as they remember the one they have loved and is no longer present. This is what we all will do & feel. Lets remember that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    One way to stay mentally alert I find is to play compter games. the had/eye coordination is all regulated via the brain. This coupled with reguar mental arithmetic does the job. Now where did I put my keys?

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    It's fine to suggest that early diagnosis of dementia is beneficial, but what good is it when there is no cure?
    I would rather not know that I showed signs of early dementia when there is no preventative treatment available.
    The suggestion that lifestyle changes reduce your chance of dementia are unproven, so why waste the doctors time, living the rest of your life waiting to lose your mind?

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    Where did they get that Scrabble set? The tile scores are wrong!!

    I may have to mention this one to my dear parents...once I am out of slapping reach that is! Thanks BBC, some backup for the 'I'm sure I told you' 'no you didn't mum' conversations!

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    Hold on a second. Decline of brain function for the over 45's? Ladies and Gentlemen. I think we've just found our connection between the politicians and bankers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    That's just plain rubbish- I'm 45 and I

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    is it such a good idea to force people to work later in life?
    after all this is an official study!

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    If this is the case then why is the government going to make us all work longer?

    (45 next Friday - its only a number!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    Not too long ago I saw an article saying that the brain isn't fully developed until people were 35-40 years old. Specifically the frontal cortex. Now they say it declines at 45. Maybe the brain peaks when it is fully developed. I'm no expert but it seems as likely as anything else I've heard. They should test 35-70 year olds in various careers and lifestyles. Civil servants tend to be lethargic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    My favorite "overconfident oldster" trick is when they misunderstand a snippet of conversation due to hearing loss and then go on to pontificate on something totally unrelated to what you were saying in the first place.

    I've been noticing this more often with the baby boomers at work. You never know whether to try to correct them onto the right train of thought, or simply let them babble on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    I think that brain function 'changes' rather than 'declines' with age.

    I'm 43 and work as a software developer. While I accept that my memory might not be as good as my younger colleagues I believe I often have the ability to think more laterally than they can and can come up with more 'generic' solutions to problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Just to point out that this research does not say that older people cannot think clearly, do degrees, write novels or whatever. It says nothing about absolute individual performance, it is about relative function in a class of individuals. So if you're writing novels at 70, that has no relevance to the findings of this research.

    It still explains why old socialists become right wingers though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    Inside everyone's head is a miniature BBC moderator that begins to work at the age of 45.

    From that point on more and more of your youthful flights of fancy and playful ideas just disappear leaving those around you wondering what you were talking about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    Do I recall correctly a product that, "refreshes the parts others cannot reach"

    In a study of all one of me, I have discovered several "eureka" moments have come about during this experimentia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    Like other body parts, the brain needs exercise to keep up to speed. Any deterioration through the ageing process tends to be retarded if this is put into practice. Better not to be too pedantic about this topic as all of us are different, both young and old.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    At 49, I would like to think that I'm as sharp as I ever was, but the truth is I can't be bothered most of the time - maybe this is the start of the mental decline, my body went years ago (MS)

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    Based on the UCL research surely the conclusion should be 'Civil Servants brain function can start to deteriorate as early as 45",

    Whether that also applies outside of the test group is pure conjecture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    My memory has been going for several years and I am only 45. If you don't use it you lose it. I find I have to write things down now to remember them unless I make a particular effort to memorise something. Anyway what was I saying again...

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    I would like to see a survey of what we do remember. You and I, based on our experience in life ... its ups/downs, I think we could run rings around those who came up with this report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    Anyone on a small private pension that resents the huge amounts doled out in civil service pensions (eg Gus O'Donnell at £2.3 million at age 59), please uprate comment 53.


Page 10 of 26


More Health stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.