How a study which began just after the end of the second world war is discovering clues to Alzheimer’s – Uncharted Brain podcast part 1

Scientists have been doing an array of regular health checks on the same group of people since they were born in 1946 – the world’s longest running cohort study. Now the brains of some of its participants are revealing new insights into the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.

We find out more in the first episode of Uncharted Brain: Decoding Dementia, a new podcast series available via The Anthill.

Based on a representative sample of 5,362 babies all born in the same week in the UK in 1946, the National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) began as a one-off investigation of the cost of childbirth and the quality and efficiency of obstetric services. From there it became the longest continuously running study of health over the human life course in the world – also known as the British 1946 birth cohort.

Since 2016, just over 500 of the cohort have also been studied for signs of dementia and ageing using cutting-edge imaging and AI technology. The results from these studies have revealed several important insights about risk factors for dementia, including:

  • Cognitive function in childhood relates to cognitive performance 70 years later.
  • Education does not just increase opportunities but is significantly associated with brain health in later life.
  • Midlife appears to be the time when hypertension and cardiovascular risk may influence dementia risk.

The journalist David Ward is one of the study participants whose brain is being studied as part of the dementia research. He’s talked and written about what it’s like to be studied in such depth for 76 years. He told us: “I keep saying that when I die, as the coffin goes down the crem, or possibly the church, there will be the national survey with its clipboard, following me and just checking on the size of the coffin – how expensive it was, how many flowers there were on top of it, whether the mourners were all wearing black, all this stuff … I love it.”

Marcus Richards and Jon Schott, two of the researchers from UCL in the UK behind the study, told us they were “humbled” by the devotion showed by study members. They take responsibility in knowing so much about them, and providing a duty of care when they detect problems. Schott told us:

The aspiration for this study is that it’ll be the first ever cradle-to-grave study, and it will follow people through their natural life course.

He said that within the next 15 years, as the participants reach their 90s, it’s likely a lot will develop dementia. “My hope is that within that timescale, we may have new therapies and new treatments that can help,” he added.

Listen to the episode to find out more about the findings and their significance. You can also read an article that Marcus Richards and Jon Schott wrote about their research as part of The Conversation’s Insights project.

Uncharted Brain: Decoding Dementia is hosted by Paul Keaveny, investigations editor at The Conversation in the UK and Gemma Ware, co-host of The Conversation Weekly podcast. The series is produced and written by Tiffany Cassidy with sound design by Eloise Stevens. The executive producer is Gemma Ware.

All episodes of the series are available on The Anthill podcast channel.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

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