2 Studies Focus on Mental Stimulation, Childhood Food Deprivation

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • What can you do to protect your brain? Two studies out of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago provide some interesting fodder to consider.

    Mental Activities

    Not surprisingly, mental activities have been found to preserve the structural integrity in elders’ brains. This study included 152 participants who, on average, were 71 years of age. These participants have been participating in the rush Memory and Aging Project, a large-scale study that is focused on the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers used a detailed clinical evaluation to ensure that participants did not have dementia or mild cognitive impairment. Participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to five how often they participated in a list of mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, writing letters and play games, during the previous year.

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    The researchers then used magnetic resonance imaging to determine diffusion anisotrophy, which is a measurement of how water molecules move through the brain. The level of anisotropy drops with aging, injury and disease. The participants participated in a brain MRI within one year of their clinical evaluation. Data analysis found that there were significant associations between the frequency of mental activity in later life and higher diffusion anisotrophy values.

    “Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher microstructural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life,” said lead researcher Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis in a Rush press release. “Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes.”

    Being Hungry as a Child

    Although I wouldn’t advise trying it, I did want to share the findings of another study out of Rush University Medical School.  Researchers found that people who were occasionally hungry as children actually had slower decline when they reached old age as compared to people who always had enough food to consume.

    The study involved 6,158 people who were, on average, 75 years of age, and living in Chicago. Sixty-two percent of the participants were African-Americans. The researchers asked the participants about their health as children, their family’s financial status and the home learning environment (i.e. how often they were read to, told stories or played games with family members). The researchers then administered cognitive tests to measure any changes every third year during a 16-year period.

    The researchers found that 5.8 percent of the African American participants who had reported that they didn’t always have enough food to eat as a child were more likely to have a slower rate of cognitive decline than participants who often or always had enough to eat. Furthermore, the 8.4 percent of African American participants who said they were thinner than other children at the age of 12 also were more likely to experience slower cognitive decline than study participants who said they were approximately the same size or heavier than other children when they were young. There was no relationship found between any of the adverse conditions during childhood and cognitive decline for study participants who were Caucasian.

  • “These results were unexpected because other studies have shown that people who experience adversity as children are more likely to have problems such as heart disease, mental illness and even lower cognitive functioning than people whose childhoods are free of adversity,” study author Lisa L. Barnes, PhD, an associate professor in the departments of Neurological Sciences and Behavioral Sciences at Rush University and a cognitive neuropsychologist in the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center of Rush University Medical Center, said in a hospital press release.

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    The researchers hypothesize that calorie restriction may delay the onset of age-related changes in the body or that there is a selective survival effect that make these participants hardier and more resilient.


    So what's the takeaway from these research efforts? I wouldn't suggest underfeeding children, but I would suggest starting to feed your brain with lots of activities and opportunities.


    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Rush University Medical Center. (2012). Can going hungry as a child slow down cognitive decline in later years?

    Rush University Medical Center. (2012). Reading, writing and playing games may help aging brains stay healthy.

Published On: December 19, 2012