Research Article: Contribution of cognitive performance and cognitive decline to associations between socioeconomic factors and dementia: A cohort study

Date Published: June 26, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jennifer Rusmaully, Aline Dugravot, Jean-Paul Moatti, Michael G. Marmot, Alexis Elbaz, Mika Kivimaki, Séverine Sabia, Archana Singh-Manoux, Michelle M Mielke

Abstract: BackgroundSocioeconomic disadvantage is a risk factor for dementia, but longitudinal studies suggest that it does not affect the rate of cognitive decline. Our objective is to understand the manner in which socioeconomic disadvantage shapes dementia risk by examining its associations with midlife cognitive performance and cognitive decline from midlife to old age, including cognitive decline trajectories in those with dementia.Methods and findingsData are drawn from the Whitehall II study (N = 10,308 at study recruitment in 1985), with cognitive function assessed at 4 waves (1997, 2002, 2007, and 2012). Sociodemographic, behavioural, and cardiometabolic risk factors from 1985 and chronic conditions until the end of follow-up in 2015 (N dementia/total = 320/9,938) allowed the use of inverse probability weighting to take into account data missing because of loss to follow-up between the study recruitment in 1985 and the introduction of cognitive tests to the study in 1997. Generalized estimating equations and Cox regression were used to assess associations of socioeconomic markers (height, education, and midlife occupation categorized as low, intermediate, and high to represent hierarchy in the socioeconomic marker) with cognitive performance, cognitive decline, and dementia (N dementia/total = 195/7,499). In those with dementia, we examined whether retrospective trajectories of cognitive decline (backward timescale) over 18 years prior to diagnosis differed as a function of socioeconomic markers. Socioeconomic disadvantage was associated with poorer cognitive performance (all p < 0.001). Using point estimates for the effect of age, the differences between the high and low socioeconomic groups corresponded to an age effect of 4, 15, and 26 years, for height, education, and midlife occupation, respectively. There was no evidence of faster cognitive decline in socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Low occupation, but not height or education, was associated with risk of dementia (hazard ratio [HR] = 2.03 [95% confidence interval (CI) 1.23–3.36]) in an analysis adjusted for sociodemographic factors; the excess risk was unchanged after adjustment for cognitive decline but was completely attenuated after adjustment for cognitive performance. In further analyses restricted to those with dementia, retrospective cognitive trajectories over 18 years prior to dementia diagnosis showed faster cognitive decline in the high education (p = 0.006) and occupation (p = 0.001) groups such that large differences in cognitive performance in midlife were attenuated at dementia diagnosis. A major limitation of our study is the use of electronic health records rather than comprehensive dementia ascertainment.ConclusionsOur results support the passive or threshold cognitive reserve hypothesis, in that high cognitive reserve is associated with lower risk for dementia because of its association with cognitive performance, which provides a buffer against clinical expression of dementia.

Partial Text: Cognitive reserve refers to an array of factors that provide resilience against neuropathological damage [1–4]. Education and related socioeconomic markers have been found to play such a role [5]. Clinicopathological studies also suggest that although education does not directly affect neurodegeneration or vascular pathologies, it may mitigate the impact of pathology on clinical expression of dementia [6]. Whether this is due to a threshold effect, in that those with more reserve can take more damage before the appearance of clinical symptoms, referred to as the threshold or passive model of reserve, or due to greater efficiency and compensatory mechanisms in those with greater reserve, the active model, remains the subject of debate [1,2,7].

The 7,499 participants (Fig 1) included in our analysis compared to 9,938 participants used in IPW were more likely to be younger, male, from the socioeconomically advantaged group, and have a better health profile, including a lower dementia rate (S1 Table). Table 1 presents sample characteristics of those included in the analyses at the beginning of cognitive testing in 1997.

In this population-based, longitudinal study of persons aged 45 to 69 years at the first cognitive assessment, socioeconomic disadvantage was associated with poorer cognitive performance but not faster cognitive decline. The associations with cognitive performance were strongest for occupation and weakest for height. After accounting for sociodemographic measures, the increased risk of dementia was evident only for low occupation. The analysis of cognitive trajectories before the diagnosis of dementia showed much higher cognitive performance in the high compared to low occupational groups 18 years before diagnosis, but this difference was completely attenuated at dementia diagnosis due to faster cognitive decline in the high occupation group in the years preceding dementia diagnosis.



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