New research links preterm birth and low birth weight to cognitive decline a lifetime later — but it also suggests that putting the brain to good use can minimize this decline.
Preterm babies or babies born at low birth weight are more at risk of cognitive decline in their old age, says the study, conducted by the U.S. National Institute on Aging. Titled “Birth Size and Brain Function 75 Years Later.” It appeared in the September 1 Pediatrics.
The study looks at birth records for 1,254 men and women born between 1907 and 1935 who lived in in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1967, when they were recruited for a genetic study.
From 2002 to 2006, survivors were again examined in a successor study, an examination that included brain MRI and extensive cognitive assessment, researchers report.
“Birth size data were abstracted from midwife records, which were not available in previous studies on early-life risk factors for late-age evidence of brain pathology,” the study states.
Researchers found that “higher levels of education, as an indicator of cognitive reserve, may minimize the effects of a suboptimal intrauterine environment on late-life cognitive function.”
In other words, one of the best ways to prevent cognitive decline is to develop a lifetime habit of using one’s mental capacity.
“The concept of cognitive reserve provides an explanation for differences between individuals in susceptibility to age-related brain changes or pathology, whereby some people, for example, those with higher educational achievement, can tolerate more of these changes than others and maintain function.”
Despite its hopeful news about education’s mitigating effect, the study also supports efforts to ensure that women carry their babies to full term. “The critical period of impaired fetal growth for our outcomes,” it says, “occurred in late pregnancy, which is when the organs and tissues undergo critical periods of development.”