Can going hungry as a child slow down cognitive decline in later years?

December 10, 2012

People who sometimes went hungry as children had slower cognitive decline once they were elderly than people who always had enough food to eat, according to a new study published in the December 11, 2012, print issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

"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 than people whose childhoods are free of adversity," said study author Lisa L. Barnes, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The study involved 6,158 people with an average age of 75 who were living in Chicago. Participants, 62 percent of whom were African American, were asked about their health as children, their family's , and their home , based on how often others read or told them stories or played games with them. Then every three years for up to 16 years, participants took to measure any changes.

For the African American participants, the 5.8 percent who reported that they went without enough food to eat sometimes, often or always were more likely to have a slower rate of , or decline that was reduced by about one-third, than those who rarely or never went without enough food to eat. The 8.4 percent of African American participants who reported that they were much thinner at age 12 than other kids their age also were more likely to have a slower rate of cognitive decline, also by one-third, than those who said they were about the same size or heavier than other kids their age. For , there was no relationship between any of the childhood adversity factors and cognitive decline.

Barnes said researchers aren't sure why could have a possible protective effect on cognitive decline. One potential explanation for the finding could be found in research that has shown that calorie restriction can delay the onset of age-related changes in the body and increase the life span. Another explanation could be a selective survival effect. The older people in the study who experienced childhood adversity may be the hardiest and most resilient of their era; those with the most extreme adversity may have died before they reached old age.

Barnes noted that the results stayed the same after researchers adjusted for factors such as amount of education and health problems. The results also did not change after researchers repeated the analysis after excluding people with the lowest cognitive function at the beginning of the study to help rule out the possibility that people with mild, undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease were included in the study.

Because relatively few Caucasians in the study reported childhood adversity, the study may not have been able to detect an effect of adversity on cognitive decline in Caucasians, Barnes said.

Explore further: Studies: Memory declines faster in years closest to death

Related Stories

Studies: Memory declines faster in years closest to death

April 4, 2012

Two new studies published in the April 4 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggest that a person's memory declines at a faster rate in the last two-and-a-half years of life ...

Recommended for you

Closing the loop with optogenetics

August 28, 2015

An engineering example of closed-loop control is a simple thermostat used to maintain a steady temperature in the home. Without it, heating or air conditioning would run without reacting to changes in outside conditions, ...

Self-control saps memory, study says

August 26, 2015

You're driving on a busy road and you intend to switch lanes when you suddenly realize that there's a car in your blind spot. You have to put a stop to your lane change—and quickly.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tangent2
not rated yet Dec 10, 2012
"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,"


This really should not come as an unexpected surprise, especially with the results of the caloric restriction experiments showing increased longevity with reduced occurrence of disease. Seems like a no brainer that it would offer the same benefit to children and offset some of the supposed damage from adversity.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.