This study examined the association of lifetime experiences, measured by a cognitive reserve (CR) composite score composed of years of education, literacy, and vocabulary measures, to level and rate of change in white matter microstructure, as assessed by diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures. We also examined whether the relationship between the proxy CR composite score and white matter microstructure was modified by participant age, APOE-ε4 genetic status, and level of vascular risk.
A sample of 192 non-demented ( n = 166 cognitively normal, n = 26 mild cognitive impairment) older adults [mean age = 70.17 (SD = 8.5) years] from the BIOCARD study underwent longitudinal DTI (mean follow-up = 2.5 years, max = 4.7 years). White matter microstructure was quantified by fractional anisotropy (FA) and radial diffusivity (RD) values in global white matter tracts and medial temporal lobe (MTL) white matter tracts.
Using longitudinal linear mixed effect models, we found that FA decreased over time and RD increased over time in both the global and MTL DTI composites, but the rate of change in these DTI measures was not related to level of CR. However, there were significant interactions between the CR composite score and age for global RD in the full sample, and for global FA, global RD, and MTL RD among those with normal cognition. These interactions indicated that among participants with a lower baseline age, higher CR composite scores were associated with higher FA and lower RD values, while among participants with higher age at baseline, higher CR composite scores were associated with lower FA and higher RD values. Furthermore, these relationships were not modified by APOE-ε4 genotype or level of vascular risk.