Sharp minds in old age ‘may be down to genes’

Professor Ian Deary: Identified variants near CADM2 gene. Picture: Contributed
Professor Ian Deary: Identified variants near CADM2 gene. Picture: Contributed
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STAYING sharp in old age may be in your genes, as scientists have discovered a link for the first time between the genetic code and how quickly we can process new information.

The findings could help understand how the brain works and why some people suffer mental decline in later years, according to a study involving Edinburgh University researchers which analysed data from 30,000 people across 12 different countries.

The role of genes in determining our ability and changes in functioning as we age is becoming increasingly clear.

Greg McCracken, policy officer at Age Scotland

The participants – none of whom had dementia – took a ­series of simple cognitive function tests which they had to complete under time pressure.

Researchers then compared the results with each person’s genetic material to identify any changes associated with speed of thinking skills.

People with slower processing speeds overall were found to have variants near a gene called CADM2 – which is linked to the communication process between brain cells.

Professor Ian Deary, director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at Edinburgh University and a co-author on the study, said: “Processing speed is thought to be a core capability for preserving other mental skills in older age. That’s why my team at Edinburgh have focused on it for the last 30 years.

“This inkling into why some people’s processing speed is more efficient than others is a small but encouraging advance in understanding the biological foundations of more efficient thinking.”

Campaigners have welcomed the advances toward understanding how the brain changes in later life but maintained that declining cognitive function does not automatically lead to reduced quality of life.

Greg McCracken, policy officer at Age Scotland said: “The role of genes in determining our ability and changes in functioning as we age is becoming increasingly clear, so this research makes a valuable contribution to our understanding.

“Keeping both mind and body active in later life is important to both maintaining mental and physical health.”

Mr McCracken called for continued support for health and social care to prevent the elderly, and their relatives and cares from becoming isolated and experiencing unnecessary stress and hardship.

The study’s findings were published in the journal ­Molecular Psychiatry.

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