Poor health and stress in 20s harm cognition in 40s

Early adulthood CRP changes linked to midlife cognition.


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Young adults with high Inflammation, often due to obesity, inactivity, illness, stress, and smoking, may have lower cognitive function in midlife, according to a new UCSF study.

While past studies linked high Inflammation in older adults to dementia, this is one of the first to show a connection in young adults.

Dr. Amber Bahorik of University of California- San Francisco said, “Brain changes leading to Alzheimer’s and other dementias can take decades. We wanted to see if early adult health and lifestyle habits affect midlife cognitive skills, which might impact dementia risk later.”

In a study published in Neurology on July 3, researchers found that only 10% of people with low Inflammation had poor processing speed and memory, compared to 21% and 19% of those with moderate or high Inflammation.

C-reactive protein (CRP) is used to measure Inflammation. Even after adjusting for age, physical activity, and cholesterol, differences in processing speed and executive functioning (working memory, problem-solving, impulse control) remained.

The study followed 2,364 adults from the CARDIA study, which looks at factors in young adulthood leading to cardiovascular disease later in life.

At the start, participants aged 18 to 30 were tested four times over 18 years for C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammation marker. They took cognitive tests five years after the last CRP test when most were in their 40s and 50s.

About half were female, and just under half were Black. Of the participants, 45% had low stable Inflammation, 16% had moderate or increasing Inflammation, and 39% had high levels.

Researchers found higher inflammation levels linked to physical inactivity, higher BMI, and smoking. Increasing physical activity and quitting smoking can reduce Inflammation and help prevent cognitive decline.

Dr. Kristine Yaffe of UCSF said, “Inflammation affects cognitive aging and may start in early adulthood. It has direct and indirect effects on cognition.”

Image showing The protein C-reactive protein (CRP) is used to measure inflammation.
The protein C-reactive protein (CRP) is used to measure inflammation. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Yaffe’s team found that 30% of dementia risk is preventable and studied the link between poor sleep and lower cognition, as well as the benefits of personalized health changes for preventing memory loss.

The study concludes that poor health and high stress levels in your 20s can lower cognitive function by your 40s. Taking care of your health and managing stress early in life is crucial for better mental health.

Journal reference:

  1. Amber L. Bahorik, Tina D. Hoang et al., Association of Changes in C-Reactive Protein Level Trajectories Through Early Adulthood With Cognitive Function at Midlife. Neurology. DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000209526.