Healthy Mind

The ‘Cognitive Clock’ Is a New Tool Scientists Use To Measure Brain Longevity

Francesca Krempa

Photo: Getty Images / Flashpop
There’s a new tool in town that’s supposed to help measure longevity, cognition, and the risk of long-term memory problems. (And no, it’s not just brain games.) The “cognitive clock” was developed by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to assess brain health based on current cognitive performance in hopes of identifying individuals who might be at risk for Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.

“Alzheimer’s disease, which is of the most common cause of dementia, and other diseases of the brain accumulate slowly over time as people get older,” said Patricia Boyle, PhD, professor at Rush Medical College and lead author of the study, in an original report by SciTechDaily. “Age is widely recognized as the main risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s a very imperfect predictor, since not everyone develops dementia as they age.”

The theory behind the cognitive clock is fairly simple: Brain age might not match actual, chronological age. Brain function typically changes the older we get. But if there’s a significant gap in brain “age” and our chronological age, this might be a red-flag for issues down the line.

“Our new cognitive clock provides a measure of brain health that tells us more about how well a person’s brain is functioning than chronological age. In this way, the clock can help us detect who is at highest risk of developing cognitive impairment in the coming years,” Boyle said.

The team’s results were published in the latest edition of The Journal of the Alzheimer’s AssociationUsing data from a population of 1,057 participants from previous cognitive impairment-related studies, results from a widely used mental cognition test, and other metrics from neurological evaluations, researchers were able to create a profile of cognitive aging, also known as the cognitive clock. From there, the team explored how core functions, like memory, attention, and language changed over time. Using this cognitive clock, researchers could “estimate an individual’s cognitive age—their position on the clock—at any given point in time.”

“We found that, on average, cognition remains stable until a cognitive age of around 80 years of age, then declines moderately until 90, then declines more rapidly until death,” Boyle said. “Further, we found that cognitive age is a much better predictor than chronological age of dementia, mild cognitive impairment and mortality. It also is more strongly associated with other aspects of brain health.”

To test the clock’s accuracy, the team applied the methodology to an independent sample of almost 2,600 participants to predict Alzheimer’s dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and mortality. Once again, they found cognitive age was a better predictor of these results than chronological age.

“Essentially, what we did is use cognitive data collected over many years to create a single, easy-to-understand metric that may be used to predict health outcomes with good accuracy,” Boyle said.

Fear not if you’re worried that your brain might be aging faster than the rest of you. There are some science-backed ways to stay mentally sharp. Yoga can help jog your memory and improve your concentration. As can eating a brain-boosting meal that’s loaded with healthy fats and antioxidants. Whatever you do, avoid falling into a mental rut, which can be the downfall of mental cognition. Instead, keep an open mind and cultivate curiosity whenever you can to keep your brain in tip-top shape.

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