From 5 to 95: The impact of life experiences on brain health

Structural and social determinants of health (SSDoH) are environmental conditions in which individuals are born, live, and learn that affect health, and evidence suggests that SSDoH can help to explain similar outcomes in Alzheimer’s disease.

How do the things we’ve experienced in our past impact tomorrow? Social and structural determinants of health (SSDoH) are the conditions—such as where we live, play, worship, study, grow up, and age—which can impact health later in life.

An elderly person doing a crossword puzzle.

Penn Memory Center (PMC) researchers Shana Stites, Dawn Mechanic-Hamilton, Sharnita Midgett, and PMC co-directors David Wolk and Jason Karlawish are studying how SSDoH impact our brain health as we age. In a paper published in Gerontologist, the group proposed a framework for how dementia researchers could collect information about SSDoH from research participants.

It is known that events and conditions throughout one’s life, or over the life course, are related to changes in older adults’ brain health. Exposures over the life course can change a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). For example, those who experience more life stressors may be at higher risk of developing dementia versus someone who experiences less stress.

This paper highlights ways that social and psychological factors impact brain health, and highlights the reasons why ADRC researchers should consider these factors when studying ADRD. This includes things that we are aware of, and the things that we may not think about: the things that happen around us.

“What people do—without even thinking—in their daily lives can impact their risk of dementia. We need to systematically study this in lots of different people who do lots of different things every day to discover what might be the most central factors to preventing or limiting dementia,” says Stites.

This story is by Sharnita Midgett. Read more at Penn Memory Center.