Nina Beker, PhD; Andrea Ganz, MSc; Marc Hulsman, PhD; Thomas Klausch, PhD; Ben A. Schmand, PhD; Philip Scheltens, MD, PhD; Sietske A. M. Sikkes, PhD; Henne Holstege, PhD
Importance: Understanding mechanisms associated with prolonged cognitive health in combination with exceptional longevity might lead to approaches to enable successful aging.
Objective: To investigate trajectories of cognitive functioning in centenarians across domains, and to examine the association of these trajectories with factors underlying cognitive reserve, physical health, and postmortem levels of Alzheimer disease (AD)–associated neuropathology.
Design, Setting, and Participants: This cohort study used neuropsychological test data and postmortem neuropathological reports from Dutch centenarians who were drawn from the 100-plus Study between January 2013 and April 2019. Eligible participants self-reported being cognitively healthy, which was confirmed by a proxy. Data analysis was performed between June 2019 and June 2020.
Exposures: Age, sex, APOE ε genotype, factors of cognitive reserve, physical health, and AD-associated neuropathology (ie, amyloid-β, neurofibrillary tangles, and neuritic plaques).
Main Outcomes and Measures: In annual visits (until death or until participation was no longer possible), centenarians underwent an extensive neuropsychological test battery, from which an mean z score of global cognition, memory, executive functions, verbal fluency, visuospatial functions, and attention/processing speed was calculated. Linear mixed models with a random intercept and time as independent variable were used to investigate cognitive trajectories, adjusted for sex, age, education, and vision and hearing capacities. In a second step, linear mixed models were used to associate cognitive trajectories with factors underlying cognitive reserve, physical health at baseline, and AD-associated neuropathology.
Results: Of the 1023 centenarians approached, 340 were included in the study. We analyzed 330 centenarians for whom cognitive tests were available at baseline (239 [72.4%] women; median [interquartile range] age of 100.5 [100.2-101.7] years), with a mean (SD) follow-up duration of 1.6 (0.8) years. We observed no decline across investigated cognitive domains, with the exception of a slight decline in memory function (β, −0.10 SD per year; 95% CI, −0.14 to −0.05 SD; P < .001). Cognitive performance was associated with factors of physical health (eg, higher Barthel index: β, 0.37 SD per year; 95% CI, 0.24-0.49; P < .001) and cognitive reserve (eg, higher education: β, 0.41 SD per year; 95% CI, 0.29-0.53; P < .001), but none of these factors were associated with the rate of decline. Neuropathological reports were available for 44 participants. While centenarian brains revealed varying loads of postmortem neuropathological hallmarks of AD, this was not associated with cognitive performance or rate of decline.
Conclusions and Relevance: While we observed a slight vulnerability for decline in memory function, centenarians maintained high levels of performance in all other investigated cognitive domains for up to 4 years despite the presence of risk factors of cognitive decline. These findings suggest that mechanisms of resilience may underlie the prolongation of cognitive health until exceptional ages.