Not all older adults develop dementia: Exploring underlying compensatory mechanisms related to healthy brain aging

PI: Laura Fratiglioni

In this multidisciplinary research project, we seek to identify possible pathways to healthier brain aging.

Studies suggest that over the course of our lives, healthy behaviors lead to the accumulation of brain reserve. That is, they create a better ability to cope with changes in the brain without developing the symptoms of cognitive (mental) decline or dementia. We hypothesize that higher brain reserve reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia by improving metabolism and reducing inflammation in the brain. Moreover, we suggest that brain reserve functions independently of other factors that are related to cognitive decline and dementia, including genetic predisposition, vascular burden (lesions in the brain), and the buildup of amyloid (protein fragments) in the brain.

In this 5-year project, we will estimate mental variability in people with differing deposition of amyloid in the brain as detected by positron emission tomography and differing vascular burden as detected by magnetic resonance imaging. Additionally, the project will explore whether behavior modifies the way genetic and cardiovascular risk factors are related to brain lesions and dementia and verify whether inflammation and oxidative stress play a role in the relationship between these factors. Finally, we will examine whether factors related to brain reserve modify the course and progression of dementia.

This project is scientifically and clinically relevant and has the potential to impact public health. The information gained in the project will add to our understanding of dementias and help us identify ways to postpone their occurrence. Preventive strategies based on our findings can be easily introduced to reduce the individual and societal burden of some of the most devastating disorders currently faced by older adults.

The project is funded by a grant from the Swedish Research Council.