October 29, 2005

Cognitive reserve in aging humans

An interesting new paper which suggests that the fact that human brain function does not decline at least up to 60 years of age, i.e., long after reproductive age, may be linked to the higher inclusive fitness of old individuals who are able to maintain a good cognitive function.

American Journal of Human Biology
Volume 17, Issue 6 , Pages 673 - 689

The aging brain: The cognitive reserve hypothesis and hominid evolution

John S. Allen et al.


Compared to other primates, humans live a long time and have large brains. Recent theories of the evolution of human life history stages (grandmother hypothesis, intergenerational transfer of information) lend credence to the notion that selection for increased life span and menopause has occurred in hominid evolution, despite the reduction in the force of natural selection operating on older, especially post-reproductive, individuals. Theories that posit the importance (in an inclusive fitness sense) of the survival of older individuals require them to maintain a reasonably high level of cognitive function (e.g., memory, communication). Patterns of brain aging and factors associated with healthy brain aging should be relevant to this issue. Recent neuroimaging research suggests that, in healthy aging, human brain volume (gray and white matter) is well-maintained until at least 60 years of age; cognitive function also shows only nonsignificant declines at this age. The maintenance of brain volume and cognitive performance is consistent with the idea of a significant post- or late-reproductive life history stage. A clinical model, the cognitive reserve hypothesis, proposes that both increased brain volume and enhanced cognitive ability may contribute to healthy brain aging, reducing the likelihood of developing dementia. Selection for increased brain size and increased cognitive ability in hominid evolution may therefore have been important in selection for increased lifespan in the context of intergenerational social support networks.


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