Dr Victoria Garfield investigates healthy ageing and how activities like napping may help prevent dementia.
What first attracted you to investigate healthy ageing?
I am generally interested in investigating ageing, which I suppose comes from having grown up very close to my grandparents. Then as a young adult I watched my paternal grandma become someone unrecognisable as a result of her Alzheimer’s dementia diagnosis.
This was difficult for our family and not long after she passed away, I had an opportunity to start to research dementia. I think that if our research can help understand the key factors to keeping adults as healthy as possible for as long as possible as they go from middle age to older age that is valuable.
You recently led a study that showed that napping may help preserve brain health. Can you tell us about this?
We conducted a large-scale epidemiological study in the UK Biobank cohort, which includes adults aged 40-69 years old. We showed that in ~35,000 individuals, having a regular daytime nap is linked to having a larger total brain volume. This is important because individuals with larger brain volumes have lower risk of dementia, lower stress levels, lower risk of early mortality, etc. We believe that our findings contribute to understanding the puzzle of potential preventative measures for dementia.
What are the implications of this study?
The implications of our study are that perhaps taking a break during the day for a nap might be a good idea. Maybe slowing down a little and having a short nap (up to ~30 minutes) could help preserve the size of our brain for longer and we know that this is a good thing, given what I mentioned above.
What other lifestyle/social factors can slow cognitive decline?
Some of the most well-documented factors that could potentially help prevent cognitive decline and consequently, a dementia diagnosis, are things such as maintaining a healthy diet and weight, engaging in regular exercise, not smoking, no or very little alcohol consumption, having sufficient sleep which is also of good quality.
What are some of the main challenges in researching the causal links between lifestyle/social factors and brain health?
Key challenges in establishing causality are what we know in epidemiology as reverse causation and residual confounding.
The former relates to the fact that establishing what comes first is difficult, as for example, a high BMI could cause poorer performance on a cognitive test but the opposite could also be true. The latter means that when we observe a relationship between a lifestyle factor and poorer cognitive performance it may be that a third factor (e.g., smoking) may be the underlying common cause of both and we refer to this as confounding.
Can you tell us about your role as a STEM Ambassador?
I have been a STEM Ambassador with STEM Learning since March 2019. I have been involved in activities such as careers days at schools, science ‘speed dating’, giving young people presentations about how I got into this job, and mentoring young people who are unsure of what options are available to them. It is a really fulfilling and fun role.