Published: 21-05-2017 23:43 | Updated: 31-05-2017 09:04

New thesis on how lifestyle relate to cognitive ageing

Hi Ylva Köhncke, PhD student at the Aging Research Center. On 23 May you will defend your thesis ”Lifestyle, cognitive aging, and brain correlates”, what´s the main focus of the thesis?

“My thesis is about how different lifestyles relate to differences in cognitive ageing. On average, we tend to get a bit worse in cognitive performance (processing speed, memory, and other cognitive abilities) as we age, even if this cognitive decline stays below the extent of what we see in dementia. But there are large differences between persons in how we age cognitively.

In my thesis, I look at lifestyle factors that are related to these differences. I also look at the brain’s white matter microstructure and dopamine receptor availability related to both lifestyle and cognitive performance.”

Which are the most important results?

“In very late life, after age 80, staying involved with the socio-cultural environment by activities such as going to the movies or eating out was associated with preserved white matter microstructure and processing speed during a 3-year period. Specifically, older persons who stayed active were more likely to keep a faster speed on simple paper-pencil tasks than persons who reduced their activity engagement. They also show a denser microstructure in a white matter tract in the brain that connects sensory and motor areas of the brain with the spine.

In another study including participants in their 60s, I found that physical activity is related to the availability of dopamine D2 receptors in the striatum. Persons who engaged in more intense physical activities showed more available dopamine D2 receptors. These receptors are involved in cognitive functions such as episodic memory, but also in motivation. Physical activity might be a cause as well as an effect of higher dopamine D2 receptor availability.

My last study suggests that the degree of cognitive decline a person experiences is influenced by constellations of a large range of factors, including age, mobility, health status and leisure activity engagement.”

How can this new knowledge contribute to the improvement of people’s health?

“The results of my studies contribute with new knowledge about leisure activities as a lifestyle factor associated with better brain white matter microstructure, better dopamine functioning and reduced cognitive ageing. However, as our results are correlational, they do not allow for claiming that activity engagement causes brain maintenance or less cognitive ageing.

Therefore, we still need to gather more evidence from longitudinal studies and intervention studies. Ultimately, this line of research can contribute to the development of interventions that take advantage of leisure activities and physical activity.”

What´s in the future for you? Will you keep on conducting research?

“Yes, I will keep conducting research. As a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, I will work on similar questions.”


Lifestyle, cognitive aging, and brain correlates