Families who live longer show better cognitive abilities as they age

BOSTON, Mass. — Hopefully you were doing so already, but according to a new study we should all be wishing a long, long life to mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa. Boston University School of Medicine researchers say that if the members of your family tend to live well into old age, you are more likely to show strong cognitive skills and retain those thinking skills as you grow older yourself. That is, in comparison to peers born into families that tend to live for shorter periods.

The findings are part of a larger project, the Long Life Family Study (LLFS), which tracked over 5,000 people from 600 families for 15 years. What sets LLFS apart from other projects is that it features individuals belonging to families with clusters of long-lived relatives, which provides a unique research perspective. Ever since 2006, scientists recruited two distinct groups for LLFS: long-lived siblings (or the proband generation) and their children. Additionally, researchers included the spouses of these individuals because they share lifestyle and environmental factors.

The study measured cognition through a series of assessments that tested multiple varieties of critical thinking. Examples include attention, executive function, and memory. Two tests were conducted over the span of eight years. This setup helped researchers investigate if people from long-living families had better baseline cognitive performances than their spouses. Similarly, do such individuals’ cognitive skills decline at a slower rate than their spouses?

There’s something in the (family) genes

The team then used a complex mathematical model to asses cognitive developments between the two tests.

“This model allows us to assess both the cross-sectional effect of familial longevity at baseline visit and the longitudinal effect over follow-up time,” says co-lead study author Mengtian Du, a doctoral student in biostatistics in a university release.

Specifically, participants from long-lived families performed better than their spouses on two tests. A symbol coding test, which means matching symbols to their corresponding numbers, thus providing insight into psychomotor processing speed, attention, and working memory. And, a paragraph recall test, which asked participants to remember a short story in order to assess their episodic memory skills.

“This finding of a slower decline in processing speed is particularly remarkable because the younger generation is relatively young at an average age of 60 years and therefore these differences are unlikely to be due to neurodegenerative disease,” explains corresponding author Stacy Andersen, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. “Rather we are detecting differences in normal cognitive aging.”

“By studying the LLFS families we can learn about the genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle habits that are essential in optimizing cognitive health throughout the lifespan,” she concludes.

The study appears in the journal Gerontology.

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John Anderer

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