From exercise to education, researchers have found many factors linked to dementia risk in older age. More recently, a team of researchers from the United Kingdom explored whether some of these factors are associated with cognitive functioning in older people without dementia.

In their study, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the researchers analyzed data from an online survey of 14,201 people over the age of 50. They focused on previously discovered risk factors for dementia, looking at which of these factors predicted cognitive functioning more generally in people without dementia.

The participants’ cognitive functioning was measured using four tests of different verbal, visual and memory skills. As it turned out, several factors were tied to performance across all four tests.

Perhaps most interestingly, moderate alcohol consumption was linked to improved performance on all four tests. So that’s good news!

How to interpret the link between drinking and better cognitive functioning in old age is less clear though. The findings don’t necessarily mean that alcohol itself protests against aging’s effects on the brain. Drinking could instead be associated with some other factor, like social activity, that keeps the brain healthy.

Other factors correlated with better cognitive functioning across all four tests were being more educated and having a “close confiding relationship.”

There were also factors that predicted performance on some but not all of the four tests. For example, people who exercised more tended to do better on the two tests that measured verbal skills.

On the other hand, people who were diagnosed with depression performed worse on average on two tests of different kinds of memory.

Some aspects of people’s physical health were also associated with cognitive functioning. In particular, being underweight and having a history of stroke were each linked to worse performance on multiple tests.

All in all, the results suggest that many risk factors for dementia also impact cognitive functioning in older people without dementia. It may be that to some extent, people can minimize the effects of aging on their brains by exercising, taking care of their physical and mental health, and – more controversially – enjoying alcoholic beverages in moderation.

Image: Flickr/Tord Sollie