Combating Obesity

By Arvind M. Dhople, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Florida Tech

Cognitive impairments can have detrimental effects on various aspects of an individual’s life, including reduced social interaction, a diminished sense of purpose, difficulties in performing daily activities, and decreased resilience in recovering from illness or injury.

                Although cognitive decline is an inevitable part of the aging process, there is still a certain degree of cognitive plasticity in later life.  Existing research has shown that modifiable risk factors, such as metabolic diseases, sensory impairments, unhealthy lifestyles, and air pollution, account for 40% of the risk factors for dementia.  Therefore, it is important to identify modifiable factors associated with cognitive decline to help maintain cognitive function in later life.

                A group of scientists at the University of Michigan delved into the association between negative wealth shocks experienced in later life and subsequent cognitive function.  The findings suggest that negative wealth shocks (defined as a > 75% loss in wealth or a decline in within – population wealth quintile rank) might be a modifiable risk factor associated with cognitive decline.  The study specifically examined the relationship between negative wealth shocks and subsequent cognitive function across four countries (China, England, Mexico, and the US), highlighting the importance of socioeconomic determinants in studying modifiable factors related to cognitive health.

                Following the COVID-19 pandemic, global economic growth has sharply declined, contributing to instability and intensifying the health challenges associated with wealth shocks, especially for vulnerable populations such as older adults and individuals excluded from public policies.  The scientists (as above) found a significant correlation between wealth shocks in later life and subsequent decline in cognitive function in older adults in China and the USA, but not in Mexico and England.  Disparities in government policies and social safety nets for older adults were suggested to be the potential reasons for this variations.  For instance, an established public health-care and welfare system in England and a non-contributory pension programs  for individuals aged 70 years and older in Mexico could have potentially reduced the risks associated with wealth shocks and mitigated their adverse effects on cognitive health.

                The association between wealth shocks and cognitive health care be regarded as a manifestation of the cumulative impact of accumulated risk factors on health outcomes throughout the life course.  Existing evidence highlights the cumulative negative effects of adverse life events, such as job losses and exposure to natural disasters during the prenatal period and early years, which contribute to an increased risk of cognitive impairment or mental health problems in later life.

                Wealth shocks can serve as important intermediary pathways linking these major adverse life events with cognitive health.  On one hand, wealth shocks resulting from job loss or natural disasters diminished opportunities for engaging in cognitively stimulating activities, thereby reducing cognitive reserves and resilience to cognitive decline.  On the other hand, wealth shocks themselves can induce stress and psychological issues such as depression, which can impair information processing and subsequently lead to a decline in cognitive performance.

                However, when examining the impact of cumulative exposure factors such as wealth shocks on health, the most important challenge lies in how to control for confounding factors that can arise throughout the life course.  Common approaches to detect these effects include conducting natural experiences or randomized controlled trials to identify casual relationships.  Additionally, the establishment of long-term cohort surveys and the development of new analytical techniques to assess the effect of cumulative risks are future directions that require substantial efforts.  It is worth noting that some low-income and middle-income countries have already taken steps in this directions.

                Finally, the scientists suggested that the association between negative wealth shocks and cognitive function, specifically the casual relationship and underlying mechanisms, should be further investigate as this information can serve as a foundation for formulating relevant policies that aim to safeguard cognitive health and promote healthy aging amidst wealth shocks.