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Social class impacts cognitive health

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Health, UK (Commonwealth Union) – Cognitive impairment denotes a reduction in cognitive faculties, including memory, attention, communication, as well as problem-solving capabilities. This condition can range from mild to severe and may be caused by various factors, including illness, injury, or age.

A recent study led by researchers at UCL suggests that individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face an increased likelihood of developing mild cognitive impairment by age 50.

Appearing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health, the study revealed that those who experienced shifts in socioeconomic status—either upward or downward—were also at greater risk compared to those who consistently maintained a higher socioeconomic standing. Notably, these findings persisted even after adjusting for factors like education level, smoking habits, and alcohol consumption.

Individuals who experienced persistent low socioeconomic status across various life stages—birth, childhood, and adulthood—were found to have an 85% higher likelihood of mild cognitive impairment compared to those who maintained a consistently high socioeconomic status.

The researchers observed that enduring lower socioeconomic status throughout life is linked with heightened levels of stress and inflammation. These factors can negatively impact mental and cerebrovascular health, thereby increasing the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

The study drew upon data from 6,590 participants of the National Child Development Study (NCDS), also recognized as the 1958 British Birth Cohort. The NCDS, a longitudinal study, tracks the trajectories of 17,415 individuals born in England, Scotland, and Wales during one week in March 1958. It examines various aspects such as social mobility, health, education, as well as employment.

The recent study utilized data spanning various stages of life – from birth through childhood to adulthood – to develop measures of socioeconomic status across the life course.

During childhood, socioeconomic status was primarily assessed using information about cohort members’ fathers’ occupations at birth. Occupations classified as professional or non-manual were considered indicative of high socioeconomic status, while manual or non-skilled occupations were deemed indicative of low socioeconomic status.

Chanthie Sahota, the first author of the study who conducted the research as part of a Master’s program in Social Epidemiology at UCL, indicated that the study takes a life-course approach to explore the impact of socioeconomic status on the development of mild cognitive impairment in later adulthood in Great Britain, an area that has not been investigated on prior occasions.

The first author further indicated that by employing a life-course framework, the research achieved a more thorough examination of the possible enduring ramifications of socioeconomic status, encompassing the distinctive influence of social mobility from childhood to adulthood on cognitive well-being in later stages of life.

“Furthermore, the findings of an inverse association between life-course socioeconomic position and mild cognitive impairment demonstrate the importance of adopting a life-course approach to effectively target social determinants of health across the lifespan.”

Dr. Dorina Cadar, the senior author from UCL Behavioural Science & Health and Brighton and Sussex Medical School, pointed out that their study spans 65 years of individuals’ lives, benefitting from a comprehensive examination of cognitive assessments, education, lifestyle behaviors, and factors such as mental health, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Dr. Cadar further indicated that their findings highlight a significant advantage for those with a consistently higher socioeconomic status throughout their lives. These individuals typically enjoy improved access to quality education and resources, which can positively impact cognitive development and offer opportunities for intellectual stimulation.”

She also pointed out that on the contrary, adverse childhood experiences correlated with lower socioeconomic status frequently entail restricted access to resources or educational avenues and could result in enduring impacts on cognitive function. As evidenced in this study, such experiences may contribute to mild cognitive impairment over time.

“While we adjusted for education level and health behaviours in our study, details about health behaviours were only captured at one point in time, and it is likely that these factors nonetheless account for some part of the associations we observed.

“Socioeconomic status can influence health behaviours such as smoking, diet, and physical activity, which in turn can contribute to cardiovascular and metabolic conditions that are risk factors for cognitive impairment in a negative spiral.

“Understanding these life course mechanisms helps highlight the importance of addressing social determinants of health and promoting policies that aim to reduce health inequalities.”

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