Higher intelligence and physical exercise in childhood may help slow the development of cognitive impairment in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), a study has found.
The research, which was published in the journal Plos One, aimed to investigate and identify possible risk factors in 150 people with MS. Because MS is a multifactorial disease that has both genetic and environmental risk factors, they focused particularly on environmental and lifestyle factors, with the hope of uncovering some which were modifiable, in order to be able to set up preventive approaches in the future.
Researchers ran cognitive and disability tests on the 150 study participants. They also interviewed each person to discover their previous and current exposure to suspected risk factors. These included cardiovascular markers, psychiatric disorders and dementia, family history of MS, past brain trauma, hormone therapies, diet and lifestyle. In particular, the diet and lifestyle assessment looked at quality of diet, vitamin D supplementation, caffeine and alcohol consumption, substance abuse, leisure activities, current physical activity, and level of activity during childhood and adolescence.
The average age of the participants was 44.9 years, with the average duration of time since diagnosis being 11.2 years. The analysis showed that 45 patients (30%) had cognitive dysfunction, with almost half of those having information processing speed issues. Those with cognitive impairment tended to be older at MS onset age, had higher MS-associated disability, and lower intelligence quotient (IQ) scores prior to diagnoses. Higher IQ scores are associated with more cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s ability to resist damage and optimise performance.
The researchers also found that higher childhood and lifestyle physical activity levels seemed to have a protective effect against cognitive impairment. They concluded that higher cognitive reserve was the most protective factor, and that larger studies were needed to confirm whether childhood and adolescent physical activity was also protective, or if there was another reason for the correlation.