Test Scores at Age 8 Could Predict Memory Loss Later in Life: Study
Sun, April 18, 2021

Test Scores at Age 8 Could Predict Memory Loss Later in Life: Study

According to the study, the academic performance of a person at age eight can determine the likeliness of memory loss later in life. / Photo by: Lightspring via Shutterstock


A person's academic performance at age eight can determine the likeliness of memory loss and mental decline later in life, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University College London (UCL) found that results of thinking and memory tests done by eight-year-olds could indicate how they will perform in similar assessments when they turn 70 years old. They also found that educational attainment and socioeconomic status can also determine thinking and memory performance. Experts said the results of the study, published in the medical journal Neurology, may be used to help slow down "cognitive decline" among the elderly.

Similarities in Test Results

The study looked into the test results of 502 British people all born during the same week in 1946. They took cognitive tests when they were eight and, when they were between the ages of 69 and 71, they took the same tests again.

One of the tests involved looking at various arrangements of geometric shapes and identifying which of the five options is the missing piece. Others included items that will evaluate their skills such as memory, attention, orientation, and language.

Analysis of the test results showed there were similarities between the results of the tests completed in both childhood and advanced age, reported The Independent, a Russian-owned newspaper established in 1986 as a politically independent national morning paper published in London and now provides the latest breaking news, comment, and features.

The researchers found that for those whose cognitive performance was in the top 25 percent as a child, they are likely to remain within the top 25 at age 70. This is a crucial finding, and experts believe it could be used in treating memory loss and mental decline among the elderly.

"Finding these predictors is important because if we can understand what influences an individual's cognitive performance in later life, we can determine which aspects might be modifiable by education or lifestyle changes like exercise, diet, or sleep, which may, in turn, slow the development of the cognitive decline," said Jonathan M. Schott, author of the study from UCL and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.


502 British people, all born during the same week in 1946, took cognitive tests when they were eight. / Photo by: Nach-Noth via Shutterstock


Education, Socioeconomic Status, and Scan Results

Aside from their test scores at childhood, education and socioeconomic status can affect the respondents’ performance on cognitive tests, the researchers also found. For example, those who completed their college degree scored an average of 16 percent higher compared to those who did not further their education.

Participants with higher socioeconomic status were also found to have better cognitive skills at age 71 although the differences were small, according to a statement. This is evident in those who work in professional jobs, who are more likely to remember an average of 12 details from a short story compared to those who worked in manual jobs (who only remembered 11 details).

Overall, women were found to perform better than men in the test of memory and thinking speed.

Part of the study also involved the participants undergoing positron emission tomography (PET) scans to determine if they had amyloid-beta plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease as well as detailed brain magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRI).

The researchers found that participants with amyloid-beta plaques scored eight percent lower on the test of the missing pieces—meaning they got 23 out of 32 correct items on average or two points lower than participants who did not have amyloid-beta plaques. However, there was no association between the presence of these plaques and the participants' gender, childhood cognitive skills, education, or socioeconomic status.

Preventing Mental Decline

The results of the study suggested that childhood development might be crucial for mental health in old age. They also questioned the theory that cognitive decline may be delayed through lifestyle choices in adulthood.

Meanwhile, some experts believe keeping the brain active, like completing crossword puzzles in middle age, helps in strengthening their cognitive reserve and fight off dementia. But others now believe that reverse-causality can drive such an effect since people who enjoy doing crosswords are already known to have greater cognitive skills.

"It is difficult to measure the extent to which individual lifestyle factors contribute to our overall dementia risk, but participants in the study offer a unique opportunity to find out more," Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, told British newspaper The Telegraph.

She added that the study highlighted the complex relationship between memory and thinking skills in early life with people's cognitive ability as they age.

"One explanation for this relationship is [the] cognitive reserve, the idea that the memory and thinking skills we acquire during our lives can make us more resilient to the symptoms of dementia in older age, but more research is needed to better understand this link."
The researchers acknowledged the need for follow-ups on all participants as well as further studies to accurately predict the changes in a person's memory as they age. Still, the study presented important results that could help scientists develop additional tools and techniques in staving off memory loss and mental decline among the elderly.