Low cognitive function, which is associated with type 2 diabetes and other medical conditions, may be genetically linked to health, according to new research.
An international research team from the UK, US and Germany also predicted that healthy individuals with lower cognitive function and lower educational attainment could be at risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease or high blood pressure.
What is cognitive function?
Cognitive function is the process of perceiving or comprehending ideas. Type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes are associated with cognitive impairment, and while it doesn’t mean everyone with diabetes will have lower cognitive ability, the risk is statistically higher compared to someone without diabetes.
Lower cognitive function is also linked with Alzheimers disease, schizophrenia and autism. In some instances, medical conditions can lead to cognitive impairment, but lower cognitive function in early life can indicate an increased risk for several mental and physical conditions in adulthood.
The research team, led by the University of Edinburgh, evaluated data from the UK Biobank of roughly 10,000 people. Their aim was to see if a genetic link could be identified between cognitive function – which has shown signs of heritability in previous studies – and physical and mental illness.
Mental test data, such as reaction time, memory and verbal-numerical reasoning was used to assess the participants’ cognitive level. This was then compared to 22 health indicators, including type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, blood pressure and Alzheimer’s; and the results of their total genetic content. Educational attainment was also measured.
An overlap was observed between genetic traits related to certain diseases and those that related to thinking skills. Scores on educational attainment also had a significant genetic correlation with 14 out of 22 health-related traits.
The researchers believe that specific genes may contribute to both cognitive and health-related traits, with data collected from previous studies used to confirm the findings.
Co-author Dr. Stuart Ritchie explained to Medical News Today: “We found that there are many overlaps: to take one example, genes related to being taller are also related to obtaining a college or university degree. […] People with more genes linked to cardiovascular disease tended to have lower reasoning ability. […]
“Interestingly, some results were in the opposite direction: people with more genes related to autism (but mostly not with a diagnosis of autism) had a slight tendency towards higher reasoning scores and were more likely to have a degree.”
The authors added that other possible interactions could include the use of medication to treat disorders, and while the impact of genetic variants could be associated with health conditions on cognitive ability, cognitive factors could also affect health, by guiding lifestyle choices, for example.
The findings were published in Molecular Psychiatry.